Clement Theodore Perthes.

Memoirs of Frederick Perthes, or, Literary, religious, and political life in Germany, from 1789 to 1843 (Volume 2) online

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The older histories do not supply this want, their style is anti-
quated, their size inconvenient, and, above all, our own extra-
ordinary times have led to new demands on our part. It is true
that several universal histories have appeared within the last
ten years: I can call to mind Joli. Midler, Schlosser, Rotteck,
Politz, Eichhorn, Heeren, Fr. Schlegel, Saalfeld, but we are
totally without a history of the individual states of Europe.
The works of this kind, constructed on a connected plan, and
published during the latter half of the preceding century at
Heilbronn and Miinster, are forgotten ; those modelled upon
Guthrie and Grey are incomplete and unconnected ; Spittlers'
important work is but a sketch. "Woltmann and Galletti
came to a stand-still at their first step. I have been for years
occupied with the thought of calling into existence a great
historical work, which should treat of each European State
individually, but without ever losing sight of their relation to
each other, or of their present political position. This plan
would have to be wrought out by a society of able men upon
a given plan, and though it need not be inconveniently limited
as to extent, the history of eacli separate state must be pro-
portionate in length to its political importance. There is no
want of valuable materials, and men of different ages may be
found fit for the task, and able and willing to undertake it.


The preliminary arrangements must, before the publication
begins, be so far advanced that the whole might appear in a
few years after the first part, the fragmentary character of our
German literature being a great defect. The greatest difficulty
will be to form a Committee to sketch out the general plan of
the work, to fix the extent of each separate part, and to assign
the right State to the right man. Such a Committee can
only consist of two or three members, but these must not only
have a genuine historical vocation, but be universally acknow-
ledged to have it, in order to exercise due influence over the
unmanageable race of authors. As the necessary caution with
respect to capital, acquirements, and profit, will preclude all
precipitation, I hold the plan to be feasible, — good-will under
favourable circumstances can do much."

Rist's answer was as follows : — " If you desire to produce a
genuine political history of the European States, I have this
objection to make: our times are unsuited for great historical
luidertakings in the higher sense. The writing of history re-
quires a contented mind, a peaceful environment, and suscep-
til)le contemporaries. But we are entirely without any fixed
point of view whence to consider and decide upon external
phenomena. Soon we shall for our sins have been wandering
for forty years in the wilderness, and we do not yet stand on
the mountain from whence the promised land can be seen.
We men and fathers shall never enter Canaan. Happy, my
dear friend, if we may climb the height from whence to look
down on those who, after our departure, will go in and take
it in possession. They too, no doubt, will have many a hard
battle with Philistines and Canaanites, but still they will
reach what we may only see. For what has yet been gained


as to our condition, our public life, what but the most utter
confusion ? What problem have we solved ? what constitution
have we established ? We have shaken oif a thousand illusions
only to fall into more than a thousand doubts and uncertainties.
The things from which we expected most, on which we staked
life and time, have fallen to pieces in our hands. The people
themselves have mistaken their own wishes, the rulers have
mistaken alike their people and their own selves. Wise men
have withdrawn themselves, seeking within the stability that
public life denied them. Misunderstandings, schisms, doubts of
conscience, discrepancy between means and end, sway the in-
dividual, the society, and the state. " Under these circum-
stances, where shall the historian find firm ground for himself
and others? No ; times of great fermentation, times of transi-
tion, are only adapted for the collection of materials, the pro-
secution of inquiries, not the writing of history. But granted
that men equal to the task were there, they would not dare to
write history. Would not the dread of placing weapons in the
hand of those bold Jacobins, who, since Napoleon's time, every-
where abound, would not the disgust at the State's political
censorship deprive the writer of his unfettered energy, and lame
the wings that should enable him to soar? How long would
he be permitted to speak historically of the abuses of the
hierarchy, the inaction of men in power, and the origin of
'most serene' families? Moreover, you must not forget that a
comprehensive historical undertaking, with you at its head,
would attract universal attention, and provoke inquisitors from
all quarters. No ; our times cannot give birth to true and
genuine history, and a work of mere convenience is not worth
the sweat of your brow. Keep this in mind, dear friend."


Poel, also, to whom Perthes liad imparted his plan and wishes,
raised many grave objections thereto. " It is true," said he,
" that the occurrences of our time have awakened in a few the
desire for profound historical investigations, in order to detect
the necessary and the accidental in the progressive develop-
ment of society, the transitory and the abused in existing re-
gulations, the right and true in the claims upon the future.
But the number of such profound investigators is very small,
and what they seek will only be found indicated, not carried
out, in the very best historical handbooks. History will do
little for most of our contemporaries of the educated class, in
the way of instruction ; scarcely indeed will they find enter-
tainment in it. The excitable intellect of the present generation
strives after a good that was not possessed by its forefathers,
and has not been trifled away by their descendants ; it does not
trouble itself about letters and seals, capitulations agreed upon
or infringed, but about the consciousness of matured powers,
which in the long run cannot continue in the service of debility.
Even the Anti-progress party does not rely upon the past.
Questions relative to the present state of things may indeed
be instructively and agreeably answered by history, but the
time for this is not yet come. This remains for the future,
which will end the strife and seize the prize. And altogether
I am inclined to believe that all that constitutes the peculiar
charm of history, and distinguishes it from a mere aggregate
of facts, — the gradual developments, the scarcely perceptible
transition from one period to another, the threads that run
throughout it as a whole, binding together ages the most re-
mote, — this, I say, can have but small interest for readers
of an era so rich in great and unexpected events as ours has


been. To the many, whole centuries past, appear empty in
comparison with a few months of the present, and new^spaper
articles are daily read through, rapidly and carelessly, which
would have engrossed our forefathers' utmost attention and in-
terest. But our intellectual palate, pampered as it has been,
requires a stronger stimulus, and owing to the rapid develop-
ments we have seen, and the impatience with which we look
forward to the future, all gradual change is for us an oppressive
vacuity — all slow progress a wearisome standing still. You
believe that you see many symptoms betokening the reverse.
But the two thousand copies of Kohlrausch's German History,
which found so cordial a reception, owe this popularity to their
German dress, and to the German self-idolatry which was then
the fashion. Walter Scott, again, will please all times, not be-
cause he is a historian, but a poet, who creates out of well-known
elements a living reality, in which we feel at home, and which,
through the magic exercised only by the true poet, affords us
the charm of a double existence, in the present and the past.
But instead of presupposing a taste for history, the predilection
for Scott is only a means of awakening it. Again, nothing
permanent can be expected from a history written at this time.
Who can represent the present aspect of affairs ? and were this
possible, the picture, as soon as draw^i, would cease to be true.
Look at the state of France, Spain, and Italy a few years ago ;
who can say what it will be a few years hence ? " How much
that now seems dominant in the fermenting mass, will, dur-
ing the process of fermentation, be cast out as a foreign ele-
ment. How long will Spain continue to be ruled by the Ency-
clopedists, France by the Jesuits and Bourbons, — how long will
the influence of Papists in Protestant Germany, and of the


half-converted natural philosophers in the Bavarian capital of
Catholic Germany, endure ? Is not our condition in civil, po-
litical, religious, and financial life, everywhere a provisional
one ? Now, history deals with the already accomplished, not
with the process of accomplishment, and it is only when we see
a result that we can recognise a cause. If your political his-
tory is to deal with the present, it will have the double fault of
dealing with what is both transitory and imperfectly under-
stood. Where is the man who can ever so dimly discern the
giant convulsions of a not distant future ? and were there such
a one, how could he fail to anticipate events by his wishes
and conjectures ? His history would, like everything else in
times of commotion, increase the prevalent agitation, excite
conflicting passions, and afford a striking memorial of the pre-
sent, but not a history of the past. Now such a history as this
ouo;ht not, and no other can be written. In short, I do be-
lieve that no time can be more unfavourable than our own for
writing a history of kingdoms just now in a transition-state.
But, on the other hand, I cannot suppress a long-cherished
wish of mine, to give a common memorial to the numerous
little states that will be annihilated with a stroke of the pen
some of these days. The least among them has its own his-
tory, noble deeds, distinguished citizens, and peculiar institu-
tions. In all of these there is still an individuality, and it would
be an act of piety to revive the memory of it in these unspar-
ing days of ours. The dead may describe our time, not the

Perthes was firm in his resolve, and quietly and cautiously
took the steps necessary for its accomplishment. The first
thino- to be done was to find men fit to lead the undertaking,


plan the arrangements of the whole, discover writers qualified
to undertake the history of separate states, and decide with
them upon the manner of treating it. When, in March 1822,
Perthes moved from Hamburgh to Gotha, he had, as he passed
through Gottingen, imparted his plans to Heeren, and begged
him to come forward as editor. Heeren had requested time
for consideration, and in May wrote to Perthes, — " Your lead-
ing ideas, my honoured friend, are very just, and I consider
their execution possible, but during the short space of life that
may remain to me after my sixty-second year, I dare not
place myself at the head of so extensive an undertaking. I
am occupied with the edition of my collective historical writ-
ings, and amuse myself besides with my favourite idea of
writing a history of commerce, especially that of the East, under
the Arab and Mongolian rule, continuing it through the Middle
Ao-es, and thus helping to supply one of the greatest gaps in
the history of the world. Then, I live in quite a different region
from that of European history, and should do wrong in accepting
your offer. But if I can help you by my advice, you know that
I shall always be found ready." As Heeren, who paid Perthes
a visit a few weeks later, still remained firm in his refusal,
Perthes had to look elsewhere, and found near at hand what
he had sought in vain far off! In June he wrote to his Ham-
burgh friend, — " Be at ease, I shall find what I want without
going about like a roaring lion, and indeed I think that I have
found it already."

Perthes alluded to Ukert, who had been settled for some
years in Gotha as librarian and professor at the Gymnasium.
At their first meeting he had felt himself attracted by Ukert,
and even in July thus wrote of him to Rist : — " Ukert is a


man of acknowledged excellence as a scholar, and yet he is
imaginative, lively, and liberal-minded. He knows the great
world-relations, is in the fullest sense of the word interested
in literature, has taste and discrimination, and is intimate with
our leading historians. His quick wit will make him dreaded
by many, but I delight in his critical, pungent humour, united
as it is with fine moral sense, a noble character, and a polished

Ukert was not disinclined to undertake the management of
the enterprise, and he and Perthes had many long discussions
as to its spirit and form. No one was to be enlisted in the
cause who looked upon history as a means of expounding his
own political creed. In a letter to a friend, Perthes observes : —
" Neither the science of universal politics, nor the description
and defence of particular political systems, neither historical
disquisitions nor reflections upon history, constitute the end
and aim of our undertaking. We shall begin by a general in-
troduction, treating of the downfal of the Roman Empire, and
the origin of the new kingdoms. On this foundation tlie his-
tory of each separate European state will be raised by different
authors, its external history, as manifested in its rulers and
in its friendly or inimical relations to other states, forming the
essence of each section. The rulers will thus be brought for-
ward more than suits the taste of the times ; but it is never-
theless true, that rulers have always exercised a decisive in-
fluence over the course of history. This external history will
answer questions as to the origin of the middle classes, and shew
how the relations of one class to another, and to the prince,
arose ; how armies and finances, arts and sciences, trade and
commerce, moral and religious condition, were developed. The

VOL. II. 8


narrative of events must be simple, clear, calm, and agreeable to
fundamental truth, in so far as our present researches extend.
Now it is not every one who can write a history of this nature ;
on the contrary, we shall have for every separate kingdom to
search for a historian who has already made its development
his favourite study, and can now present us with the results.
That he should have treated his subject from a patriotic point
of view, that his love should have even run into partiality, will
be no disadvantage, rather the reverse, for we shall thus secure
fervour in the writings of all, and the one-sided views will
balance each other."

According to the repeatedly expressed wish both of Perthes
and Ukert, Heeren now consented not only to give his advice,
but his name towards the support of the undertaking, and be-
fore the end of 1822, the first step was taken to realize the
plan of a " History of the States of Europe, edited by Heeren
and Ukert."

The next thing to be done was to find men able and willing
to undertake the history of each separate State. In March
1823, at a meeting held at Gottingen between Heeren, Ukert,
and Perthes, it was resolved that Perthes should address cer-
tain leading historians, and endeavour to secure their counsel
and sympathy. Accordingl}^, he wrote to Rehberg of Hanover ;
to Friedrich von Raumer ; C. A. Menzel ; Friedrich Christoph
Schlosser, and Karl Friedrich Eichhorn of Gottingen. Their
ready answers, without exception, expressed cordial sympathy,
and promised advice and active assistance. In one of these
answers we read : — " It is essential to prove to our ultras of
every kind, that they do not know what is German, but give
out as such either empty abstractions, foreign fooleries, or


foreign valuables smuggled into Germany. Nothing can cor-
rect this evil so well as history ; but who reads anything now-
a-days except newspapers ? And this is the fault of the his-
torians themselves, who do not take pains enough to make a
book readable."

The worthy old Rehberg wrote from Hanover : — " The
recollection, most honoured sir, of which your letter gives
me a precious proof, and your confidence in my power of
furthering a work so important to our nation, are inexpres-
sibly valued by me. I will candidly tell you how far my help
can go. England has long attracted my attention, as being
the only State whose public transactions afford useful instruc-
tion to all nations whatsoever; and to a forty years' ac-
quaintance with the proceedings of its parliament, I owe the
best part of my political creed. However, I have always had
a practical end in view, and if I am better acquainted with
English events than is common in Germany, I am still far from
being really familiar with English History. I have never oc-
cupied myself with its earlier sources, and therefore my opinions
of ancient events would be solely taken from modern writers.
I might, indeed, discover whether in the works submitted to my
judgment, the general point of view were or were not correct,
but I could form no decision at all as to details." Hormayr
sent from Vienna hints as to the historical treatment of the
Austrian Empire: — "Do not," said he, "let any one write
about Austria who does not live there, least of all, one who has
left it in our own day ; otherwise the game will be played
with false cards, and the value of the work will not survive the
passions of the moment. It is incredible how much has been done
here in the collection of old records, and any one who wishes


to write the history of Hungary, Bohemia, or Austria, should
come to Vienna. I sliould give the right hand of fellowship to
your deputy with the same pleasure as to the Frankfurt Society's
deputy. Dr. Pertz, who is, both by his modesty and profound
learning, admirably fitted for any scientific occupation. But
the historian will have no easy time of it — we live in very
unpleasant days, there is little sincerity and integrity, as well
as little dignity or charm of manner — nothing is pure, all is
stained with personalities — there is much ciy, and little wool.
He who by deed and sacrifice has taken part in the great
national conflict, may well sink to the earth with shame at
this generation, which has done and suffered nothing for it,
and yet now comes to claim its share, with flapping wings and
horrible croaking, like ravens flocking to a battle-field.''

Another letter runs as follows : — " You see that I know you
well, and value your confidence. Your plan, too, is admirable,
only I do not know where you are to find your men, and that
I must know first of all, because I will not lend myself to the
infamous speculations of authors writing for fame or money.
I have sacrificed more to truth than I can tell you, and, like
the hermits of old, have willingly renounced for its sake the
world and its joys, wife and children, and I think of dying for
the truth with the same delight I have felt in living for it.
Therefore, if yours is a mercantile aflair, let the strange being
who does not want your money go on his way ; but if you are
the same man that you shewed yourself to be at the time of
Germany's oppression, then I will take whatever share you or
the editors may assign to me, and believing that I am of ser-
vice to my fatherland, I will work just as if I were in your pay.
You wish my opinion about the men who now write history :


I should only have to say, — the one wants taste, the other
earnestness ; the one knowledge, the other religion ; this man
is deficient in philosophy, and that in everything. You would
smile, but you would not, I hope, believe that the writer had
a monopoly of wisdom. So I will not interfere with your
assignments to others. I will gladly help, but only if some
definite part be assigned to me. I am marvellously proud, but,
pray, believe that I am also marvellously modest, and that it
has never occurred to me to set a value upon my scribblings,
but much upon the fact of numbers having again regained
with and through me, that confidence in human-kind, of which
my books had deprived them. If I am to have fellow-writers,
I must know them ; for I am above all things intolerant of
bad fellowship, and good fellowship being rare, I live a soli-
tary life."

Perthes and Ukert now began to look out for the right men.
This was an anxious matter to Perthes, and we find him writing
to the Baron von Gagern : — " Your Excellency will smile at my
believing it possible to unite learned Germans in a common
enterprise. I know the difficulties perfectly, but no one can
influence the world by himself, and he who is too wise to be
helped will never do great things in any department. I hope
by this truth to overcome even the sensitiveness of the learned,
who wish only for good society, that is to say, their own. I do
not despair ; I have the gift of uniting the dispersed, bringing
the distant near together, and tuning any discord of heart and
mind amongst right-feeling men. This is the plough I have
ploughed with all ray life." Perthes' confidence had not de-
ceived him ; on all sides men of learning gave in their adherence
to his plan, and even expressed delight at the prospect of


labouring together in a common undertaking. It was not
without a feeling of triumph that Perthes announced to his
two doubting friends, Rist and Poel, the quantity of admirable
personal material which had been collected. " It is just this
admirable personal material, as you call it/' said Rist in reply,
" which forms your temptation to feel more secure than circum-
stances warrant. Napoleon had the same, and was misled by
it into the Russian campaign ; however, the cold was too much
for it, and the present political atmosphere will, according to
my thinking, be found to exercise the same deadly influence
over historians; and besides, you must not forget that you have
German ' savans ' to deal with, who, as a rule, are great in pre-
paratives for a work, but fail in that work, and are altogether a
most unmanageable set of people, who will have their own way
in all things, have not the least tact, never mince the matter,
and are ready to die for an opinion. Further, remember that
there exists between the authors invited, and the publishers who
invite, a sort of delicate coquetry, which generally changes,
after their union, into a very different relation."

Perthes had frequent occasion to remember these words, but
yet after five years of strenuous effort, he was able, in 1827, to
announce the historical work, of which the first part appeared
two years later, and which has ever since been regularly conti-
nued, " It is hardly credible," wrote he, " what toil and trouble,
what twisting and turning, this undertaking has cost me for
the last six years. One of the learned would have failed in
bringing or keeping men together ; it pertained to a position
like mine to effect what has been effected, and the question
still remains, — Will the result meet the requirements of science,
and diffuse historical truth through the nation ?" Elsewhere


he writes, — " I am too old to take part in the disputes of the

different writers. As a publisher, I have to remember that

when Peter was hungry and would eat, he saw a sheet filled

with creatures of every kind let down before him. Now, a

publisher is not exactly in the same plight as to killing and

eating, but he has to collect historians of all sorts, whether wild

beasts or fowls of the air, and so to get the History of Europe

written." — " I am very doubtful as to the commercial result,"

he writes in another letter ; " the outlay is considerable, and I

have but little confidence in the public ; many a disagreeable

artifice must be had recourse to, to make any impression upon

it. True, this history is the very thing to supply a want

extensively felt ; but how are we to get this admitted V It

Online LibraryClement Theodore PerthesMemoirs of Frederick Perthes, or, Literary, religious, and political life in Germany, from 1789 to 1843 (Volume 2) → online text (page 7 of 36)