The German key to European liberty

Germany today struggles to muster a serious military response to the Russian challenge. That should trouble keen observers of Europe's history.

CONGRESS OF VIENNA (1814-1815) Napoleon watching the Tsar, the Emperor of Austria and King of Prussia dividing up Europe
The Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). Napoleon watching the Tsar, the Emperor of Austria and King of Prussia dividing up Europe. Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

Liberty always exists in a particular geopolitical context. Many seventeenth and eighteenth-century Britons saw a deep connection between their own parliamentary and religious freedoms, German liberty – that is, the constitution of the Holy Roman Empireand the liberties of Europe, which was a contemporary synonym for the balance of power on their continent. The nature of the link shifted over time, but its importance remained undiminished. It is part of the wider history of Western liberty and grand strategy whose legacy remains with us today.

These connections developed during the early seventeenth century and the English Civil War. Most Puritans and parliamentarians (the two groups overlapped but were by no means identical) saw the defence of the Protestant cause in Europe against ‘popery’ and ‘universal monarchy’ – a rough synonym for dictatorship – as essential for the protection of their own rights from domestic or foreign encroachment. If the forces of counter-Reformation Catholicism and Habsburg hegemony managed to dominate, so the argument ran, they would then over-run the Low Countries – the ‘counterscarp’ or outworks of England – and it would not be long before they landed on its southern shores. In order to prevent this, many Englishmen supported the traditional rights of the princes of the Holy Roman Empire – German liberty, as it was termed – against the power of the emperor.

This was not just an English concern. Towards the end of the Thirty Years’ War in Germany, the Swedish chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, announced that his aim was ‘to restore German liberties…and in this manner to conserve the equilibrium on Europe’. For this reason, the treaties of Westphalia which brought the war to an end not only (re-)established a system of power-sharing within the Holy Roman Empire, but also a system of external guarantors (Sweden and France). The emperor remained at the apex of this order, but he had to recognise the rights of the various imperial ‘estates’, the electors (who chose him), the princes, the ecclesiastical principalities and many other smaller territories. The intricate German imperial constitution – the Reichsverfassung – was thus an integral part of the European balance of power.

During the late seventeenth century, the emphasis shifted from opposing the Habsburgs towards confronting a new European hegemon: the France of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Many in England feared he would dominate the continent and then turn his attention to them. They also suspected, not without reason, that their own monarchs, Charles II and James II, were conspiring with the French king to undermine their parliamentary liberties. Soon, the Austrian Habsburgs – the sworn enemy of Louis’ designs – became England’s favoured partner in defence of the Holy Roman Empire and the European balance of power more generally.

But the fundamental connection made between English – and after the Union with Scotland in 1707, British – freedoms and the frustration of tyranny on the continent remained unchanged.

This understanding was explicitly articulated by the House of Commons at the start of the War of the Spanish Succession in June 1701. It undertook to support William of Orange’s efforts in conjunction with the emperor and the Estates General (the Dutch Republic) for ‘the preservation of the liberties of Europe, the prosperity and peace of England, and for reducing the exorbitant power of France’, as explained in my book, Three Victories and a Defeat: the Rise and Fall of the First British Empire. After the war, the three powers established a ‘barrier’ system of fortresses to keep the French out of the Low Countries. This alliance with the Austrian Habsburgs and the Dutch Republic was so routinised that it became known as the Old System.

British understandings of their own liberty were thus always tied up with the liberties of others. This link was not based on the assumption that they needed to export their own system in order to defend themselves. Most Britons did not want to establish mini Westminsters or Churches of England across the Channel. Theirs was a much more diffuse, or nuanced, sense of concern, not only for European Protestants and anti-absolutist forces, but also with the constitutional and geopolitical framework which protected them. Over time, this sentiment largely emancipated itself from its religious origins and became more purely political and geopolitical. The Habsburgs might be Catholics, but in geopolitical terms they were Protestant, in so far as they defended the liberties of Europe and, therefore, British freedoms. In that sense, eighteenth-century Britons believed they could not long remain free if others were subjected to tyranny. To them, liberty in Europe was not divisible.

In the early 1740s, Britain worried about the weakness of the Habsburgs after the death of Emperor Charles VI without a male heir. It was feared that France, which had just bested Austria in the War of the Polish Succession, would try to take advantage of its new ruler, Maria Theresa, in order to partition the Habsburg lands. These anxieties were greatly increased by Frederick the Great’s invasion of the Habsburg province of Silesia. The London government and many Britons feared that if France succeeded in subverting Germany, the ‘barrier’ would be compromised and, with it, the security of the home island. Then the French would join up with the Jacobites and destroy parliament, Protestantism and British freedoms as they knew them.

This connection between British and European liberty was repeatedly articulated by protagonists. For example, Henry Pelham, later prime minister, remarked in early 1740 that, ‘The [German] Empire may be considered as the bulwark of Great Britain which if it be thrown down leaves us naked and defenceless.’ In December 1741, Lord Carteret (then a foreign secretary and soon to be prime minister) announced that, ‘The liberty and repose of Europe is almost lost after which we shall not keep ours for long.’ Summing all this up, the Scottish peer Lord Hyndford remarked, not long before becoming ambassador to Prussia, that the death of Charles VI rendered ‘the German Body [the Holy Roman Empire]…lifeless and inactive’. This mattered, he continued, because it ‘threatened the liberties of Europe and thus Britain’.

Across the Atlantic, many American colonists agreed. Despite the distance separating them from the mother country, they saw their cause and freedoms as inextricably linked to that of the European balance of power. It was axiomatic to them that if France gained the upper hand in Flanders or Germany, Britain itself would be in danger and, with it, the security of the 13 colonies. For this reason, the colonists were content to sacrifice hard-won lands in America to prevent this from happening, for example when London returned the Canadian fortress of Louisburg to the French in order to secure their withdrawal from the Low Countries.

Similar concerns surfaced after 1792-1793, with the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars. The principles of the revolution of 1789 challenged ancient regime Europe not merely ideologically, which was manageable, but strategically, which was not. Many revolutionaries were convinced that they could only survive if they exported their principles to the rest of Europe, or at least to the states neighbouring France. When the French advanced into Germany and the Low Countries, this was immediately perceived by many Britons as a threat to the European balance and thus to their security and liberty. The liberté of 1789, in other words, clashed with German liberties and the liberties of Europe.

No one articulated this view better than the great Anglo-Irish politician and political philosopher Edmund Burke. He saw a ‘great Revolution…preparing in Germany’ which would be ‘more decisive upon the general fate of nations than that of France itself’. Burke believed this mattered because the past 200 years of European history had shown ‘the independence and the equilibrium of the [German] Empire to be the very essence of the system of balanced power in Europe, and the scheme of public law or mass of laws, upon which that independence and equilibrium are founded’. This would be threatened if the French attacked the smaller territories because ‘it is on the side of the ecclesiastical electorates that the dykes raised to support the German liberty will first give way’.

If that happened, then – and here Burke was, of course, channeling an eighteenth-century commonplace – the barrier system in the Low Countries would be in jeopardy. ‘Those outworks,’ he warned, ‘which ever till now that we so strenuously maintained as the strong frontier of our own dignity and safety, no less than the liberties of Europe.’ There it was again, the link between British freedoms, German liberty and the European balance of power. It remained a very important, though by no means the only, element of the strategic rationale behind British strategy until the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815.

Of course, this Whig understanding of liberty and strategy was contentious in British policy and politics. There were many who believed that Britain’s destiny lay on the oceans and in the colonies. Tories such as Jonathan Swift or Viscount Bolingbroke abjured continental commitments and they largely rejected the religious and political affinities rehearsed above. Over time, they were joined by radical Whigs and other ‘blue water’ enthusiasts who thought the ‘wooden walls’ of the Royal Navy protection enough, and wanted a primarily maritime orientation and strategy. For a time after 1760, this sentiment gained the upper hand, but the disaster in America and the revival of the French ensured a return to old orthodoxies.

It is worth adding that the eighteenth-century preoccupation with liberty did not extend to the black slaves being trafficked across the Atlantic, or to the non-Protestant populations of the British Isles, especially in Ireland. To that extent, the freedom of some involved, and perhaps even required, the lack of freedom for others. This began to change in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with the rise of abolitionism and the demand for Catholic emancipation, both of which had been achieved by the mid-1830s.

The connection between British and European (especially German) freedoms was to have a fateful afterlife and resonates to this day. In the early and mid nineteenth century, maintaining the integrity of the new German Confederation – which replaced the old Reich shattered by the French onslaught – was central to upholding the Vienna Settlement.

When Bismarck unified Germany, London was initially supportive on the grounds that the new empire would help contain France and Russia. But when the Second Reich developed, or was perceived to develop, hegemonic tendencies, Britain not only fought a world war to contain her but also looked to a combination of external constraints and internal political transformations to keep Germany under control. The trick was to make Germany strong enough to deter outside predators but not so strong that it would threaten its neighbours and the overall balance. Critics might say, though, that London did not do enough to secure liberty there, thus allowing the rise of Hitler. Be that as it may, the operation was repeated during and after the Second World War. There could no longer be any doubt that tyranny in Germany, whether that took the form of German revanchism or a Soviet takeover, would threaten Britain. This was reflected even in the structure of the New German Federal Republic. Look at photographs of the founding moments of the Länder of Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony and North-Rhine Westphalia, and you will see a general of the British army of occupation nearby. The ‘dykes’ and ‘barriers’ of the eighteenth century were re-erected. After 1945, saving Germany from tyranny was once again seen as central to preserving British freedoms.

Meanwhile, the torch which Britain had held since the early eighteenth century had passed to the descendants of their formerly junior partners, the American colonists. The old debates about Europe and Germany were replicated across the Atlantic and were a staple of American Cold War discourse, but the majority cleaved more to a ‘Whig’ than to a ‘Tory’ understanding of the issue. US strategists generally accepted that Germany was the central battleground in the contest with the Soviet Union, and that the defence of their own liberty required the protection of German liberty, that is the democratic order of the Federal Republic, as well.

Today, in the era of Ukraine and the fragmentation of German politics, the link is once again clearly visible. The Russia of Vladimir Putin represents a mortal threat to the European order, both strategically and ideologically. His irredentist projects menace the territorial integrity of  NATO and the European Union. His claim to defend Christian and conservative values, and those of ‘sovereign democracy’ against the ‘soulless’ West, hits at the heart of our societal coherence. By February 2022, at the very latest, when Putin launched his second invasion of Ukraine, the challenge was clear to most.

In the face of this, the Federal Republic of Germany appears to be failing one half of the task set for it by history. To be sure, it has not threatened Europe militarily (though some see it as an economic hegemon), but equally Germany has not mobilised in the common cause either, or at least not to the degree required. Where the Habsburgs and their imperial allies were once the mainstay of coalition efforts against France, Germany today struggles to muster a serious military response to the Russian challenge. It now matters more than ever, not only to Britain but to the entire Western world, that Germany appears, to borrow Lord Hyndford’s phrase, ‘inert and lifeless’.


Brendan Simms