Underdeveloped and under pressure, Eastern European countries looked to adopt enlightened absolutism, an innovative layer of statecraft that maintained a semblance of continuity in an attempt to reinstate stability, stimulate growth, and resolve tensions between the middle-class and the aristocracy in their nations, which, ironically, led to a revolutionary demise of monarchy across Europe. Enlightened absolutism was a creative and reactive solution, implemented by monarchs, specifically in Austria, Prussia, and Russia, to augment internal political control post-conflict. Additionally, it was meant to make the nations more formidable on the international stage in order to not fall behind their Western counterparts. With regards to Prussia, Frederick II (1740-1786) imprints his enlightened style across the country, but near the end of his reign, his cynicism stirs unsettlement and discontentment with the idea of enlightened absolutism. Similarly, in Russia, Catherine II the Great (1762-1796) used enlightenment absolutism and consolidating law, a hallmark enlightened reform, to establish credibility for an impending expansion initiative, which, when pursued, was met with a widespread rebellion. In Austria, a similar governing model is put in place by the Habsburg monarchy, specifically by Maria Theresa (1740-1780) and Joseph II (1780-1790), which ultimately resulted in Belgian and Hungarian unrest. Across Eastern Europe, the secularization and centralization at the higher levels, consistent with reforms made under the influence of enlightened absolutism, were frequently met with violent resistance from below.
However, enlightened absolutism was a product of moral, political, and economic crises, similar to the ones that it ultimately causes. These pressures all followed conflicts such as the Seven Years War, Thirty Years War, the Fronde revolt in France, and other civil unrest across Europe.1 Morally, governments use enlightened absolutism as a response to the eschatological contentious points at the time. Politically, this model seemed best suited to internally consolidating power which was perceived to be necessary to facilitate survival and growth in the hostile international environment where power struggles were eminent and ubiquitous. Economically, enlightened absolutism served as a political framework where the aristocracy could maintain their hold on domestic wealth. The Seven Years War, specifically, was instrumental in convincing rulers that new initiatives were imperative, as its length, scale, and destructiveness made it clear that immediate reconstruction and reform was necessary.2 For example, the Habsburg Monarchy was burdened with a state debt that was nearly seven or eight times their annual revenue.3 But, these impacts were not merely financial. The conflict exposed the shaky domestic foundations upon which states had to maintain in order to preserve their international reputation, and it also highlighted administrative shortcomings. Most ruling dynasties in the East knew that they were either falling behind or backward to start with.4 The Seven Years War provided an obvious impetus for reform, but did not specifically or explicitly dictate what measures should be implemented as a response.5 Enlightened absolutism, while reactive, was also creative and adaptable. It outlined the way that individuals should respond to problems and challenges and the manner in which they confront difficulties, using the ideological underpinnings of the Enlightenment.6 During its initial introduction, popular conservatism and apathy was an obstacle to its success and acceptance. However, the model was still adopted by several different governments, specifically in Eastern Europe, where growth was slowing, the accumulation of debt was accelerating, and reform was necessary.
Frederick II of Prussia, a principal enlightened absolutist, used continuity of policy from his father’s rule and balanced it with religious tolerance and lawful reform, which were primary principles of the Enlightenment.7 While he was a major proponent for both educational reform and religious tolerance, key principles of enlightened absolutism, Frederick’s priorities lied with his militaristic ambition. While this allowed for Prussia to be strengthened on the international stage, it also translated to Frederick’s narrow limits on Prussia’s social systems.8 He censored political debates and this strict censorship antagonized his people, and especially the Junkers, who were the German aristocrats. Junkers had the power to reject his plans and direct political reforms near the end of Frederick’s reign.9 Unfortunately, his attempts to balance and moderate power were met with constant pushback, specifically from the Junkers, and thus his reign saw a constant struggle between the royal autocracy and the noble-dominated bureaucracy for supremacy.10 Frederick may have delayed the Junker-ruled bureaucracy, but this was only the beginning of impending revolts.
The Habsburg Empire, specifically Maria Theresa and Joseph II, were two successive rulers that enforced enlightened absolutism through two different avenues, but their empire was met with revolts spurred by both of them. Maria Theresa believed that in order for the government to properly protect its citizens, the governmental authority must tighten its reigns, especially with the expansive territory that she ruled.11 Maria Theresa and her advisers looked to use natural law, economic doctrines, and imperial sovereignty as justifications for their enlightened reform, as well as innate Christian responsibility to the people.12 Her regime cut down the foundations of serfdom and bolstered educational curricula, which inspired individuals to take ownership of their opinions, which allowed revolutionary ideas to not only fester, but also eventually be executed. After her death in 1780, her restless and unhappy son Joseph II rose to the crown, and he commanded the Habsburg army while looking to expand upon his mother’s reforms.13 He lacked a certain charm and intelligence that many other enlightened despots, including Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick II possessed. His image was unflattering and he was depicted as an arrogant and bad-tempered sovereign.14 While his concern for human dignity was sincere, he could not properly make his authority known without resorting to dictatorship tendencies. Specifically, his incessant encouragement of making German the administrative language for his expansive and heterogeneous empire irritated the Italians and Croats.15 The emperor lacked a gentle touch, especially following his mother, that was necessary for implementing the drastic reforms that were a part of enlightened absolutism. Joseph’s nine-year reign ended with a revolt in Belgium and unrest in Hungary. The Belgian uprising was led by a clergy that disliked his involvement in religious procedures. In Hungary, the unrest was more politically-oriented.16 This is due to the fact that Joseph began to overhaul Hungarian institutions after he suspected they were only representing the vested interests and not the peasantry, which is an idea that the Enlightenment was also trying to reject. While his goal was revolution from above, he feared that igniting popular will could have led to larger revolts.17 He proceeded to suspend most of his aristocratic reforms and by the time he was dead, his efforts were essentially intangible. Maria Theresa and Joseph II implemented enlightened absolutist reforms to modify political and religious balance, but unfortunately it led to religious traditionalists feeling as though the Enlightenment was a violation of their religious customs, while the feudal advocates felt as though absolutism was encroaching on their traditional, revered rights, which led to increased civic unrest and revolts.18
If there was an embodiment of enlightened absolutism, philosophical contemporaries in the West would say it was Catherine the Great.19 Inspired by Frederick, she corresponded extensively with philosophers, such as Voltaire, and promoted secular intellectual beliefs with a vague disposition for sweeping change.20 She was shrewd, opportunistic, and intelligent, almost the opposite of Maria Theresa. Her reign began with a radical vision of enlightened economic and legal reform. These innovations violated the traditional interests and attitudes of the aristocracy and the peasantry. In turn, she needed to confirm her absolute authority by the Russian elite so she could assure herself the loyalty of administrators, officers, and the rest of the aristocracy.21 She employed the same strategy of codifying and improving the legal system, except she executed it in favor of the nobility to accomplish this. Additionally, she started to restructure the Russian provinces to extend her control of states. This inflamed Russia’s eastern provinces in 1773, which sparked an even more serious and widespread rebellion than the small occurrences in the past.22 It began among the Cossacks of the Urals whose leadership submitted to Catherine, but whose rank and file refused to, and they began to fight government troops. Emilian Pugachev, the army deserter in charge of leading the rebellion, brought some of the glaring overriding social issues to Catherine the Great’s attention.23 After this revolt, the monarch lost whatever morals and ethics she might have originally used in the first half of reign that were a byproduct of enlightened absolutism, and became a hardened reactionary. This pattern of state-initiated reform from higher levels followed by a pious peasant revolt from below was common throughout her reign and enlightened despots’ that followed. 24
In these three different reigns, there is a direct corollary from the introduction of policies that were inspired by Enlightenment doctrines to the social revolts that occur just after. Paradoxically, the same three pre-conditions—moral, economic, and political pressures—that enlightened absolutism was used to combat, reoccur after its implementation.25 If the Enlightenment encouraged and endorsed individualistic theory, the Eastern European political variations on this could be characterized by limitation. Enlightened absolutism, in and of itself, is a contradiction—this was a clear distinction that was observed by the populous when it was first introduced as well.26 However, in the monarchs’ desperation to ameliorate their current situations and to match Western Europe in terms of economic and political success, they buy into, quite literally through sponsoring the philosophies, enlightened absolutism as their only solution. Morally, the reforms caused violent conflicts over “true religion” and the government’s jurisdiction over it, especially when those in power were using Enlightenment, a movement that brought about secular beliefs.27 Through attempting to bolster economic success through educational reform, the movement inadvertently encouraged citizens to take ownership of ideas and allowed them to lead civil revolts, which ended up undermining governmental power, a result that would not have occurred if they had simply committed to the absolutist governing model.28 Lastly, politically, these reforms caused instability in the region. With a wave of new ideas came a wave of people looking to individually improve their nations, without leaving it to their governments who had been trying to show that they had their population’s best interest at heart, but had not committed to that ideology or the absolutist one.
Ultimately, the inability of monarchs to choose one governing model over the other led to the adoption of enlightened absolutism as a reactive solution to the lack of growth in these countries. While this led to revolution in several cases, as demonstrated earlier, it did have long lasting impacts on European and eventually, all Western political philosophies. These revolts inspired large-scale revolutions in both America and France, which in turn made the reforms that were put in place during this time long-lasting. Hallmarks of enlightened absolutism have become pillars of today’s Western political theory, specifically with regards to religious tolerance, expansive educational systems, improved and humanized legal procedure, centralized administration with reduced bureaucracy, raising the middle class to dignity, and ultimately bettering the economic situations of these nations.29 While enlightened absolutism led to constant revolts and extensive revolution, it laid a foundation for unobstructed innate freedoms provided by the government for the people.