“Political thinkers in the early modern period” or: Against amnesia of the other German history

by Moritz Nestor

The history of the German people in the twentieth century is often alarmingly distorted, as if Hitler had been a spiritual descendant of Christianity, of modern natural sciences, Frederick the Great and so on. In the vortex of false images of history, which were spread after the Second World War, it was particularly the German political thinkers who in the early modern times created the crucial foundations of natural law and thereby paved the way to a democratic constitutional state.
The book “Staatsdenker in der frühen Neuzeit”, edited by Michael Stolleis, is a valuable contribution against the amnesia of this portion of German history and has lost none of its relevance even more than 20 years after publication. It contains fifteen essays on the life and work of mainly German natural rights activists and political thinkers of the early modern time and the 17th and 18th centuries who significantly wrote history and without whose contribution the emergence of the democratic constitutional state and the codification of human rights would be unthinkable.
For nearly two centuries, between 1600 and 1800 they were all deeply concerned Christians, who had racked their brain as to what a society was to look like where all people regardless of their beliefs, ideologies, or origins could live in just and secure peace and harmony. The political thinkers and founders of the state as well as the criminal law reformers of the 18th and 19th centuries drew from their thinking.
Those political theorists of the early modern period had witnessed the atrocities of the Spanish conquerors in the new lands of America, the 80 years of religious warfare of the Netherlands against the Spaniards, the Thirty Years War and the many other religious and civil wars with their infinite atrocities in the name of “true” faith, or the Caesarism of power-hungry nobles.
As Christians, they drew on the traditions of ancient and early modern natural law as well as the Roman Law thinking and emphasized that man is born free and equal in rights. That he is not to be respected because he is baptized, but that heathens and Christians, unbelievers and believers are to be respected and have the same natural rights, because they have the same human nature. Out of this compassion for those unjustly treated and the resulting demand for liberation through law, they created the basic framework of our modern state and international law, some 200 years before the first constitutional states were created.
Although in science it is emphasized time and again that the basic concepts of the modern democratic state were developed not only in the 18th century, but already at the beginning of modern times, which includes the age of humanism, the “discovery” of America and the religious schism. This, however, has hardly led to significant research impulses, which would have come close to justifying the importance of the problem. In the public political debate, this very best tradition of German history seems to be scarce or absent. It seems indeed as if there had been no progressive German political thinking before the French Revolution, or before Hegel and Marx. The important role played by Brandenburg-Prussia for a second European-wide wave of enlightened natural law in the eighteenth century seems to be buried, for example, under the dogma that Prussia produced only militarism and evil spirit.