R. Rexheuser (Hg.): Die Personalunionen von Sachsen-Polen 1697-1763 und Hannover-England 1714-1837 (Robert Frost)
Die Personalunionen von Sachsen-Polen
1697–1763 und Hannover-England 1714–1837. Ein Vergleich, hg. von
Rex Rexheuser, Wiesbaden (Harrassowitz) 2005, VIII–495 S.
(Deutsches Historisches Institut Warschau. Quellen und Studien, 18),
ISBN 3-447-05168-X, EUR 78,00.
rezensiert von/compte rendu rédigé par
Political Unions have long been treated with suspicion, if not downright distaste, by politicians and historians alike. Ever since it was widely agreed in the nineteenth century among both tribes that the »rise of the nation state« represented the central narrative of political modernity, unions have tended to be seen either as steps on the road to the creation of a greater whole which transcended its parts, or as barriers to progress: pointless attempts to yoke together nations whose ultimate destiny lay in their separate existence. Unions, of their very nature, are messy and often incoherent, with varying degrees of integration of political cultures and institutions; their association by many with national oppression and the strongly-developed narrative of national liberation and self-determination have tended to make them unpopular. Nevertheless, although the twentieth century bore ample testimony to the problems of identifying the nation-state with progress, especially moral progress, and although some politicians and historians have begun to reassess the role of political unions, there have been few coherent or convincing reevaluations of their historical significance; perhaps only Linda Colley has succeeded in placing the nature and role of unions at the centre of historiographical debate, even if her conclusions have proven controversial.
Yet in the early modern period the operation of the dynastic principle, combined with an increasing solidification of state structures meant that what historians conventionally term political unions, from simple unions of crowns to deeper relationships based on a melding of political units, were actually rather common, even if not necessarily popular. Many were relatively shortlived or shallow, either failing to survive the brief dynastic moment which produced them, or failing to deepen and thicken as their creators had hoped; others survived and strengthened despite substantial obstacles. Most, however, have been studied overwhelmingly from the points of view of the nations who constituted them; there has been little deep comparative analysis. It was therefore a bold step for the directors of the German Historical Institutes in Warsaw and London, Professor Rex Rexheuser and Professor Peter Wende, to conceive of a conference in Dresden in 1997 which would compare Saxony-Poland and Hanover-Briain: two parallel and almost exactly contemporary early modern unions. The fact that the resultant volume took eight years to emerge and is rather uneven merely reflects the difficulty of the task.
The concept is a good one, for there are indeed many striking points of similarity between the two unions. The conference marked the tricentenary of the election of Frederick Augustus, elector of Saxony, to the Polish crown which he adopted as king Augustus II. If the Hanoverian union with Britain began with the accession of George I in 1714, in a very real sense it was initiated by the 1701 Act of Settlment, a mere four years after Augustus’s election. In both cases a powerful prince of the Holy Roman Empire – itself a form of confederal union – by acquiring the crown of a much bigger, more populous and powerful state, forced his way into the front rank of European rulers. As rulers of German terrritorial states in which they enjoyed – or at least claimed to enjoy – absolute powers in a number of spheres, they came to rule over states with highly developed parliamentary systems which had significantly curbed the powers of the crown. Each had to change his religion, though the shift of George I from Lutheranism to Anglicanism represented a much less momentous step than the conversion to Catholicism of a man who ruled over the very cradle of the Reformation.
The organisers of the conference (at which this reviewer was present) provided a comendably clear framework for the deliberations, which is reflected in the structure of the book. Sections on Saxony-Poland and Hanover-Britain contain roughly parallel essays on the origins of the respective unions, their institutional structures, the viewpoints and interests of the parties to the union, the problems attendant on having one ruler and two states and the role of the court; two of the papers from the original conference are omitted, while a new paper by Nicholas Harding is included, and the book is completed by a comparative section.
That the outcome is, in several respects, a disappointment, is not really the fault of the editors. The volume does have many strengths, and there are some good individual essays which raise important issues: in particular Mariusz Markiewicz’s comparative analysis of the role of the governing councils of Saxony and Poland; Alina Żórawska-Witkowska’s account of the transformation of Warsaw’s musical culture by the union (though as Timothy Blanning points out, she virtually ignores opera); Brendan Simms’s characteristically trenchant and iconoclastic account of the role of Hanover in British policy; Annette von Stieglitz’s account of court life in Hanover without a prince; and Harding’s useful analysis of changing attitudes in Hanover to the British connection. Yet overall, while there is much informed rumination on the issues raised by the two unions, the book represents something of a missed opportunity.
The problem is largely the national framework in which political history has traditionally been written. This is particularly evident among the historians of Saxony and Britain. While historians of Britain in the early modern period are currently obsessed with the problem of union, very few have any knowledge of, or interest in, Hanover, or the German to investigate it: thus two of the four British contributors to the section on the Hanoverian-British union – Graham Gibbs and Aubrey Newman – were already emeritus at the time of the conference. Gibbs, whose supervisor was Ragnhild Hatton, who did more than anyone to transform views of the Hanoverian connection among British historians through her seminal biography of George I, contributes an elegant and thoughtful account of the formation of the union and the issue of succession, but while it is to be recommended for its clarity, it does not really break any new ground. Newman, whose primary work has been in Jewish history, contributes a lively essay, but one whose complete lack of footnotes must have caused Professor Rexheuser sleepless nights: it may well be a first in a German academic publication. The virtual extinction of the traditional Rankean school of history, with its emphasis on high politics and the primacy of foreign policy, means that there is a shaming dearth of historians of Britain who have any real interest in relations with continental powers in this period, or the foreign languages (in particular German) to study them: Brendan Simms, who has built his career on asserting the primacy of foreign policy is a highly honourable exception. British historians with German tend to study German, not British, history. The situation is rather better with regard to Hanover, and the book contains a number of useful and interesting essays on the union from the Hanoverian perspective which show a clear grasp of current British scholarship. Alas, they will do little to advance the necessary task of alerting British historians to the continuing importance of Hanover, since they are written in German and will be inaccessible to all but a few.
The situation is rather better with regard to the Polish-Saxon union, at least on the Polish side. Since the 1950s, Józef Gierowski and Jacek Staszewski – who as President of the Polish Historical Society played a key role in the organisation of the conference – have transformed the bleakly negative picture of the Saxon union which used to dominate Polish historiography. They and their pupils have produced seminal works on both Polish and Saxon history; while their essays in this volume, including two by Staszewski, are elegant summaries of their academic achievements which add nothing new, their influence is reflected in the number of times their works are cited, in particular Staszewski’s biographies of Augustus II and Augustus III, now available in German, and his vital account of Poles in eighteenth-century Dresden. Alas, the two doyens of Saxon studies in Poland did not take the opportunity of the conference to enter into what could have been a fascinating debate: there is a tantalising aside in Gierowski’s essay in which he states that he cannot quite share Staszewski’s positive assessment of Augustus III, but he does not develop the point.
On the Saxon side, however, the lack of any real acquaintance with Polish history by scholars who do not know Polish, represents a considerable handicap. Katrin Keller and Carsten-Peter Warncke provide interesting essays on the Saxon court and the artistic policy of the Saxon electors, but the Polish dimension is only available to them through the relatively rare German translations of Polish works, which means that they are not really equipped to give a convincing account of cultural development and cross-cultural influences. Karl Czok and the doyen of Saxon historians, Karl-Heinz Blaschke, give succinct summaries of work available elsewhere, though it is somewhat surprising that Blaschke’s polemical and ill-informed attack on the union as a disaster for Saxony has been allowed to stand, including as it does the claim that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth cannot be regarded as a state because it could not raise taxes, which had several distinguished Polish historians leaping out of their seats with consternation at the conference.
Most disappointing, however, are the comparative essays. Only Jerzy Lukowski has enough grasp of both Polish and British political systems to offer much in the way of truly comparative analysis. Heinz Duchhardt’s piece is an elegant overview of what others have said, and rather evades the issue by claiming that the two unions are not really comparable, while Timothy Blanning offers some lively observations concerning the respective courts. Jeremy Black’s contribution is unstructured and often incoherent; he displays considerable knowledge of eighteenth-century diplomatic history, but no ability to channel it effectively. These essays reflect the failure of the volume as a whole really to consider the two Unions in the context of the growing literature on early modern Unions: the seminal work of such as Helmut Königsberger, John Elliott or John Robertson is almost entirely ignored. Thus the book overall represents a useful compendium of material on the separate unions, which is good on Hanover and makes available (in German at least) a concise summary of the Gierowski/Staszewski revisionist school in Polish historiography, but which breaks little new ground.
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Rezension von: In: Francia-Recensio 2008/3 | Frühe Neuzeit – Revolution – Empire (1500–1815) URL: http://www.perspectivia.net/content/publikationen/francia/francia-recensio/2008-3/FN/Rexheuser_Frost Veröffentlicht am: May 20, 2013 Zugriff vom: May 20, 2013