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Ordinary Prussians. Brandenburg Junkers and Villagers, 1500-1840.

Ordinary Prussians. Brandenburg Junkers and Villagers, 1500-1840. By William W. Hagen (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xi plus 679 pp.).

Stavenow, in east-Elbian Brandenburg, offers an excellent example of the classic Junker estate--too modest for an aristocratic magnate, yet large enough to boast an impressive manor house graced with Renaissance gables and family portraits. In this remarkable book, William Hagen explores in wonderful detail the lives of Stavenow's Junker lords, peasant farm holders, and semi-landless agricultural workers. Hagen begins in the sixteenth century, when the Quitzow family transformed Stavenow into a highly commercialized manorial economy (grain, sheep, and timber) based in large part on labor services provided by the peasants and smallholders on the estate. The book ends around 1840, after the agrarian reforms that transformed its subject peasants into a free holding class while severing forever the ties of lordship that had bound the village population to their lord. The author has shaped rich and detailed archival sources into an extraordinary study that effectively dispels mystifications that have long obscured our understanding of Prussian agrarian society.

Many historians continue to view the Prussian Junker as the residual villain of modern German history. They argue that, well before its militarization in the late eighteenth century, the Junkers had already imposed a degrading and impoverishing serfdom on their rural subjects, crushing all resistance and replacing it with the Kadaver-Gehorsam (unquestioning obedience) that would henceforth characterize the relationship between rulers and ruled in Prussian society. The dominant position of the Junker elite in Bismarck's German Reich ensured that this ethos of unquestioning obedience would form the political basis of the new German state. While recent scholarship on Prussia has already done much to undermine this interpretation, Hagen's work effectively demolishes it by going to the heart of the matter--the rural world in early modern Prussia. In doing so, he illuminates questions central not only to Germany, but also to the history of east central Europe as a whole: the economic impact and social costs of manorial lordship (Gutsherrschaft), noble culture, and the complex structure of east-Elbian villages.

At the end of the sixteenth century, Stavenow was a highly profitable estate that owed much of its prosperity to the strength of east-Elbian lordship, which empowered noble estate owners to demand heavy labor services from their peasants and smallholders. At the end of the sixteenth century, most of Stavenow's peasants owed their lord labor services of three days per week. While this imposed a harsh burden on the peasant economy, Hagen shows that in Stavenow (and in most regions of Brandenburg), the peasants, far from being serfs, enjoyed strong inheritance rights, access to royal courts, and a readiness to stand up to seigniorial demands that they deemed excessive.

The Thirty Years War, which exacted a severe toll throughout most of Brandenburg, did not spare Stavenow. As late as 1686, the village population there was only two-thirds of its pre-war level, and seigniorial attempts to re-impose the labor rents they had enjoyed before 1618 sparked village protests throughout the entire district, including Stavenow. As a ruling elite vested with powerful forms of lordship over its rural subjects, the Junkers naturally had the advantage in most of these conflicts, but Hagen shows that power relations between the lord and his villagers were rarely as one-sided as historians have long assumed.

Colonel Andreas Joachim von Kleist (1689-1738), who inaugurated his family's tenure at Stavenow, is emblematic of the successful eighteenth century Junker. An excellent soldier who rose to the command (and ownership) of a regiment, Andreas acquired Stavenow through a combination of careful financial management, royal patronage, and an advantageous marriage. His wife bore him five daughters and eleven sons, and providing the daughters with suitable dowries, and the sons with sufficient funds to launch their military careers, had top priority in a noble family strategy aimed at maintaining noble wealth and status across generations. Estate revenues naturally played a central role in this strategy, and encouraged seigniorial exploitation of the village population, and in an attempt to restore labor rents to the levels reached prior to the Thirty Years War, Andreas von Kleist imposed a strict and demanding regime on his village subjects. This resulted in increased conflicts between lordship and village, but Kleist, whose military duties obliged him to delegate the tasks of direct estate management, did not insist on absolute observance of his regime, and his manorial court rarely imposed severe punishments on peasants for their labor service derelictions. His son Joachim, who personally managed Stavenow after 1763, showed himself capable of petty tyranny and brutality on several occasions, but the peasants, completely uncowed, refused to bend to his demands for more labor services.

Peasant resistance to higher labor services was common in eighteenth century Brandenburg, and ultimately proved a blessing in disguise for pragmatic estate owners like the Kleists, who, faced with their peasants' refusal to accept higher labor rents, turned to capitalist methods to increase manorial production and income. By 1750, the Kleists had abandoned the three-field system, placing their manorial farms on an improved crop rotation system that resulted in better yields and increased dairy production. At the same time, the Kleists relied increasingly on a wage labor force that grew rapidly in the second half of the eighteenth century, and left them prepared for the agrarian reforms in the early nineteenth century.

While historians have not credited the Junkers with the flexibility and pragmatism displayed by the Kleists, they have also failed to recognize the peasants' ability to resist, which as Hagen shows, was stubborn, courageous, and even, at times, successful. The peasants of Stavenow clearly hated the labor services imposed by their seigniorial lords, and after 1720, when labor services of three days per week once again became the norm on Stavenow, most peasants commuted one day per week with a cash payment, thus holding labor services to two days per week, which appears to have represented an economic threshold, beyond which the peasant had to keep an increasing number of workers and draft animals. While there is no question that labor services substantially increased the peasant's overhead, and thus reduced his net surplus, Hagen's meticulous research on the household economies of Stavenow's peasants makes it clear that labor services represented a "heavy, though not necessarily ruinous, burden." (p. 68.) Despite modest average yield ratios (less than four to one for rye), high overhead, taxes, and additional rents in cash and kind, peasants with full farmsteads (sixty to seventy-five acres of arable) retained for their own use approximately fifty percent of their grain surplus in the first half of the eighteenth century. In the late eighteenth century, when rents and taxes did not keep pace with rising grain prices, the peasants' share in their grain surplus rose to sixty-five percent, although this improvement did not lead to significant accumulations of village wealth. The heavy burdens of rents and dues, the farm holder's financial obligations to his parents and siblings, and, not least, the recurrent cycles of poor and mediocre harvests, imposed powerful constraints on capital accumulation in Stavenow. At the same time, these constraints were not incompatible with the modest and stable rural prosperity enjoyed by Stavenow's villagers in the eighteenth century.

As Hagen points out, the "average" villager was a farm worker, not a peasant, and most villagers in Stavenow began their careers as farm servants at age fourteen, serving either on the manor or in peasant households. Farm workers had only limited possibilities of acquiring their own farmsteads, since the children of farm holders tended to marry the children of other farm holders, and strong inheritance rights kept farms within the same family. In the eighteenth century, more than eighty percent of farm transfers went to one of the farm holder's children or stepchildren. Employment conditions varied greatly, although farm servants could often marry, and growing seniority and experience brought improved status, wages, and living conditions. Cash wages were low, but since the workers received most of their wages in kind (p. 400), workers' incomes were not seriously undermined by rising prices for grain and other agricultural goods in the late eighteenth century. In concluding that Stavenow's laborers did not experience a long-term deterioration in diet and living standards in the eighteenth century, Hagen offers a radical critique of the arguments advanced by historians like Wilhelm Abel and Ferdinand Braudel, who see a growing and largely unrelieved impoverishment of workers in the Old Regime. The lot of Stavenow's workers was hard, but may have been less stressful than those of the peasant farm holders. The latter had a much lower life expectancy (twenty-five years) than male laborers and cottagers, who lived an average of thirty-eight years (p. 265).

This work is a major achievement that not only revises conventional interpretations of Prussia and modern Germany, but also challenges the conventional agrarian dualism that distinguishes sharply between an increasingly free rural population in the west, and enserfed villagers in the east. After reading this book, it is hard to disagree with Hagen's conclusion that east-Elbian villages "were like much of the countryside in west and south Germany ... a world of middling family farmers, self-sufficient producers, and, except in bad years, surplus sellers on nearby markets." (p. 184).

Edgar Melton

Wright State University
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Author:Melton, Edgar
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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