Monday, August 31, 2009

The Economy & Social Standing in Mendelssohn's World


Germans in 1800 regarded class as a system of social order and economic organization. Nobility was something that was inherited (only on occasion granted to someone for an accomplishment or distinguished service). Businessmen might earn more wealth but a nobleman had more status.

This may explain why, once he settled in Vienna, Beethoven (see left) liked to give the impression he was descended from a noble family. In Germany, the “von” in someone's name meant noble birth: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, for instance, meant the great German poet was descended from a noble family even if he wasn't a prince or a count. But the “van” in Ludwig van Beethoven's name came from his distant Dutch heritage and has no special significance. Most of Vienna's nobility would have been aware Beethoven wasn't “one of them” from his manners and attitudes. But a man could lose his fortune and descend into lower-class society even though his ancestors had been aristocrats.

When he had taken his sister-in-law to court over custody of her son Karl, his claim to nobility moved the law-suit to a court that handled cases for noble families and he was granted custody of the boy. A few years later, when the sister-in-law was able to challenge Beethoven's claim to noble status and he was unable to produce the proper credentials, the case was thrown out of that court back into the court system that handled commoner's law-suits where the custody was reversed.

A French observer, herself of the nobility (in France, they used “de” instead of “von”) wrote that “In Germany, everybody keeps his rank, his place in society as if it were his established post,” like a job without chance of advancement or demotion.

The ideas sparked by the French Revolution of 1789 did not affect Germany's nobility. While some – like Beethoven – supported democratic ideals about the equality of men (odd for a man who claimed to be of noble birth, though), Germany as a culture was content to let the same ideas that affected France to simmer until a series of revolutions across Central Europe broke out in 1848.

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Even though Mendelssohn's family was wealthy and might have a more lavish life-style than many a “reduced” nobleman, they were still lower on the social scale regardless of their Jewish heritage (see the earlier post, Mendelssohn & His Jewish Heritage; undated portrait, right, of Felix Mendelssohn). Curiously, in the 1880s, the Mendelssohns running the bank Abraham and his brothers had founded in the 1790s were elevated to the nobility: the family name had now become “von Mendelssohn.”

It didn't help in the 1930s when the Nazis tightened their control and forced Mendelssohn & Co., once one of the most important private banks in Germany, to transfer its assets to Deutsche Bank in 1938, firing all the Jewish employees of the firm. Members of the family had hoped to reorganize the bank after the war but this never happened.

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Because of this class-oriented attitude and the fragmented nature of the German states, the Industrial Revolution which had changed England in the 18th Century was slow to have the same impact on German society. The great rivers of Germany stimulated commerce but when you had customs tolls at the borders with some 300 states and roads varied from state to state – don't forget, railroads didn't connect major cities until the 1840s – trade was very slow. Add to this the diversity of measures, weights, coinage and laws from state to state, it's amazing Germany became industrialized at all.

Imagine what it might be like if the United States had become a loose confederation (like Germany in the 18th and 19th Centuries) where the more powerful states – perhaps New York, Massachusetts and Virginia – had become independent countries but the other states' counties were each independent states as well with, perhaps, city-states like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh also independent. Laws might differ from county to county, you would have to pass through border customs at each boundary and so forth. Even as it was, the roads from Philadelphia to Harrisburg and towns further north in the Susquehanna Valley were difficult enough, moving produce and manufactured items on stage-coaches and wagons. Things would have been very different in the development of our country. Even though this is only conjecture, this is similar to what actually WAS happening in what eventually became Germany during the time the United States was becoming a nation.

(Illustration is of a list of 19th Century Turnpike Tolls in Pennsylvania)


England had a generation's advance on the growth of industry in Germany and forbid the export of its technology to the continent (especially trying to keep it out of Napoleon's hands).

But the constant warfare with France forced Germany to develop industry whose primary function was either to clothe people or kill them. When Napoleon blockaded the continent to keep England from trading with other countries, Germany was forced to provide for itself. Mining and metal industries began developing along the Rhine and in 1811 Friedrich Krupp established a steel factory that under the leadership of his son Alfred (1812-1887; see photo, right) would become the main supplier of military weapons for Germany from the 1840s till the 1940s. Reorganized after the war, the company still exists today as one of the world's largest producers of steel.

(Incidentally, Krupp also instituted subsidized housing and health care as well as retirement benefits for his workers, very unusual for the early 19th Century and something that was first initiated in the United States in 1910, when workers at a Washington State lumber mill were offered a wide range of medical services for a premium of $0.50/month.)

- Dr. Dick