State Knowledge in Central Europe after 1848

What do governments know? When and why have they generated knowledge about themselves, sovereign territories, the functioning of bureaucracies, legal systems, and the effectiveness of legislation? In other words, how have officials made that capacious concept we call the state legible?

State knowledge took on heightened importance in Central Europe in the nineteenth century with the transition away from remaining vestiges of feudalism. This is especially clear to see during the revolutions of 1848. Over the course of a turbulent two years, revolutionaries protested against a great many things. They most famously called for national unification and the introduction of liberal constitutions, but they also demanded the reform of outdated modes of administration. Such ultimatums were unsettling for governments in two ways. First, they required a rethinking of law, as well as of the kinds of bureaucratic structures and activities needed to bring about a more flexible handling of domestic affairs. And second, they prompted an urgent need to generate knowledge to gage the effectiveness of these initiatives.

Series: Exploring Knowledge in Political History
Blogging before Conferencing
Discussion starters for the conference "Political Culture and the History of Knowledge: Actors, Institutions, Practices," June 6–8, 2019, GHI Washington. #poliknow #histknow @histknowledge

In response to the revolutions of 1848, governments across Central Europe centralized state authority and expanded the reach of bureaucracies on a breath-taking scale, providing for an expansion of knowledge production. This was particularly noticeable in the two German great powers, Austria and Prussia.1 In the other German states, governments also expanded their bureaucracies, albeit on a lesser scale. Württemberg, Saxony, and Hannover were cases in point.2 Indeed, as Christopher Clark has recently claimed, this period saw nothing less than a revolution in government across Europe.3

Newly enlarged bureaucracies carried out a range of novel tasks, including the increased production of legal and administrative knowledge. In the field of crime and punishment, this included amassing information on past legal reforms designed to codify modern criminal law, as well as Justizstatistik and Criminalstatistik, to illuminate the effectiveness of administrative activities in the exercise of criminal justice. In the countryside, it included gathering information on trade, commerce, and the legal developments around peasant emancipation introduced since the Napoleonic Wars, and in cities, it involved gathering urban statistics for the first time. Furthermore, the development of press offices in the public sphere facilitated a new culture of press management, in which statistics were generated to understand newspaper markets, consumption, and state successes (or failures) in using the judiciary to curb oppositional newspapers.

This array of largely legal-statistical knowledge was further complemented by the collection of similar government materials from other European states. Exchanges between German states, and with states beyond German-speaking regions, became fundamental to statecraft in the 1850s. Agreements for the circulation of municipal statistical publications were created between Prussia and other states with city statistical offices, including municipalities in France and the Netherlands, and across the Atlantic in the United States. In addition, specific publications were founded to facilitate the circulation of this material, including the Jahresbericht des statischen Amtes des Königl. Polizei-Präsidiums in Berlin (Annual Report of the Statistical Office of the Royal Police Presidium in Berlin), founded in 1853 by the Berlin Police President Carl von Hinckeldey, and the Jahrbuch für Volkswirthschaft und Statistik (Yearbook for National Economy and Statistics), founded in 1852 by Otto Hübner. Alongside these materials, a more robust exchange of statistics and legislative documents developed between officials, facilitated by the introduction of international statistical conferences in the 1850s. Between 1853 and 1876, nine International Statistical Congresses took place across Europe at the encouragement of professionals inside and outside government with the aim of standardizing national statistics.4 The exchange of parliamentary handbooks and constitutional documents was also formalized in this period, resulting in a significant amount of materials from which comparative data sets could be compiled.

The production of new knowledge about state and society was important. It facilitated a turn toward what contemporaries deemed a more pragmatic, realist form of politics and policy-making after the years of heightened ideological clashes in 1848 and 1849. This shift occurred in two ways. First, statistical data was increasingly used by ministers in parliamentary debates to push through state-building measures which had been languishing since the Napoleonic Wars. In Prussia, for instance, realist ministers of justice such as Karl Anton Märcker were able to secure the implementation of a criminal code and a code of court procedure through recourse to statistical arguments. This was important as both pieces of legislation had been discussed and endlessly revised since 1826.5 Second, statistics were used to defend the revision of legislation in the 1850s against more reactionary agendas—a task which would drag out until 1858. In other words, new, seemingly neutral ways of talking about the state and its capacities were deemed important if a way out of the revolutionary upheavals was to be found that did not involve a close reliance on the agendas promoted by democrats or ultra-conservatives.

Moreover, officials increasingly engaged in the dissemination of this information beyond government offices in the 1850s in order to encourage support for reforms among upper-middle-class professionals. This constituency included members of the educated and professional classes, the so-called Bildungsbürgertum, such as lawyers, university professors, engineers, architects, and journalists. State statistics were often passed on to such individuals, if they were prominent in professional associations, for publication in journals and newspapers. For instance, Theodor Goltdammer (1801–72), a royal Tribunal Counselor (Obertribunalsrat) in Prussia, published important criminal statistical materials in the 1850s, as did the legal expert Carl Mittermaier in Baden.

The results of knowledge production for state-building in the 1850s were significant. It allowed for a middle course between two extreme alternatives to come to the fore in politics, just as had been seen in the reform era at the turn of the nineteenth century. But this time the bureaucracies finally undertook a largely successful penetration into areas of society formally under the purview of weakened feudal structures. In other words, these bureaucracies ushered in a new world of direct state intervention, creating a “watershed between an old world and a new.”6 This new world of direct state intervention would be fundamental for a number of the German states in the 1850s and 1860s, and ultimately, the formation of a unified German state in the 1870s.

Anna Ross is associate professor in modern European history at the University of Warwick, and she tweets under the handle @AnnaRossTweets. Further information on the present topic can be found in her new book, Beyond the Barricades: Government and State-Building in Post-Revolutionary Prussia, 1848–58 (Oxford University Press, 2019).

  1. John Deak, Forging a Multinational State: State Making in Imperial Austria from the Enlightenment to the First World War (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 118. ↩︎
  2. Abigail Green, Fatherlands: State-Building and Nationhood in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). ↩︎
  3. Christopher Clark, “After 1848: The European Revolution in Government,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 22 (2012): 171–197, ↩︎
  4. Nico Randeraad, “The International Statistical Congress (1853–1876): Knowledge Transfers and their Limits,” European History Quarterly 41 (2011): 50–65, ↩︎
  5. Georg Beseler, Kommentar über das Strafgesetzbuch für die Preußischen Staaten und das Einführungsgesetz vom 14. April 1851: Nach amtlichen Quellen (Leipzig: Weidmann’sche Buchhandlung, 1851), 4-6. ↩︎
  6. Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947 (London: Allen Lane, 2006), 501. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Anna Ross, “State Knowledge in Central Europe after 1848,” History of Knowledge, May 24, 2019,