1902 Encyclopedia > Friedrich von Gentz

Friedrich von Gentz
German publicist and diplomat
(1764-1832)




FRIEDRICH VON GENTZ, (1764-1832), born at Breslau, May 2, 1764, aptly and accurately described by his dis-tinguished friend Varnhagen von Ense as a writer-states-man (Schriftsteller Staatsmann). He was more than a publicist or political writer. His position was peculiar, and his career without a parellel. It is believed that no other instance can be adduced of a man exercising the same amount of influence in the conduct of public affairs, without rank or fortune, without high office, without being a member of a popular or legislative assembly, without in fact any ostensible means or instrumentality besides his pen. Born in the middle class in an aristocratic country, he lived on a footing of social equality with princes and ministers, the trusted partaker of their counsels and the chosen exponent of their policy.

His father held an employment in the Prussian civil service; his mother was an Ancillon distantly related to the statesman of that name. On his father's promotion to the mint directorship at Berlin and consequent removal to the capital, he was sent to a gymnasium there, and in due course completed his education at the university of Frankfort-on-the-Oder. He is said to have shown neither liking nor aptitude for intellectual pursuits till after his attendance on the lectures of Kant at Königsberg, in his twentieth or twenty-first year, when, suddenly lighted up as by inspiration, he set to work in right earnest, mastered the Greek and Latin languages, acquired as perfect a knowledge of French as could well be attained by one who was not a Frenchman, and a sufficient familiarity with English to enable him to translate from it with clearness and fluency. He also managed to gain an intimate acquaintance with English commerce and finance, which he afterwards turned to good account. The extent of his acquirements was rendered more remarkable by his confirmed habits of dissipation; for from the commencement to the conclusion of his career he was remarkable for the manner in which, in the midst of the gravest occupations, he indulged his fondness for female society and a ruinous passion for play. In 1786 he was appointed private secretary to the royal general directory, and was soon afterwards promoted to the rank of Kriegsrath (war-councillor). Like Mackintosh, he was fascinated by the French Revolution at its dawn, and, like Mackintosh, was converted to a sounder estimate of its then pending results by Burke. He broke ground in literature in 1794, by a translation of the celebrated Essay on the French Revolution, followed in 1794 and 1795 by translations from Mallet du Pan and Mouuier. In 1795 he founded and edited a monthly journal which soon came to an untimely end. In November 1797 he published a pamphlet under the title of a Sendschreiben or Missive addressed to Frederick William III. of Prussia on his accession, pointing out the duties of the new sovereign and especially recommending the complete freedom of the press. In the course of the next three years he contributed to the Historisches Journal a series of articles " On the Origin and Character of the War against the French Revolution," with express reference to Great Britain. These led to his visiting England, where he formed intimate relations with Mackintosh, Lord Gren-ville, Pitt, and other eminent men, which proved lasting, flattering, and remunerative. The first entries in his pub-lished diary, beginning April 14, 1800, and continued (with breaks) to the end of 1828, run thus:—

" On the 14th of April, an agreeable surprise. The Jew elder, Hirsch, brought me 50 thalers for drawing up I know not what representation (Vorstellung). May 28. —Received through Barou Krüdener a watch set with (small) brilliants, a present from the emperor of Russia. June 1.—Received through Garlicke a letter from Lord Grenville, together with a donation of £500, the first of its kind."

The last entry for this year, 1800, is :—" At the end of the year great pecuniary embarrassment. Received £100 from Garlicke and negotiated with Carysfort."

The diary for 1801 begins :—"February.—Very remarkable that on the one side Lord Carysfort charged me with the translation into French of the English Notes against Prussia, and shortly after-wards Count Haugwitz with the translation into German of the Prussian Notes against England."





Frequently recurring entries of this kind illustrate his position through life. He was to all intents and purposes a mercenary of the pen, but he was so openly and avowedly, and he was never so much as suspected by those who knew him best of writing contrary to his own convictions at the time. This is why he never lost the esteem or confidence of his employers,—of Prince Metternich, for example, who, when he was officially attached to the Austrian Government, was kept regularly informed of the sources from which the greater part of his income was derived. Embarrassments of all sorts, ties and temptations from which he was irre-sistibly impelled to tear himself, led to his change of country; and an entry for May 1802 runs:—" On the 15th I take leave of my wife, and at three in the morning of the 20th I leave Berlin with Adam Müller, never to see it again." It does not appear that he ever saw his wife again either; and his intimacies with other women, mostly of the highest rank, are puzzling from their multiplicity. He professes himself unable to explain the precise history of his settle-ment in Vienna. All he remembers is that he was received with signs of jealousy and distrust, and that the emperor, to whom he was presented by Count Colloredo, showed no desire to secure his services. Many years were to elapse before the formation of the connexion with Metternich, the most prominent feature and crowning point of his career.

Before entering into any kind of engagements with the Austrian Government he applied to the king of Prussia for a formal discharge, which was granted with an assurance that his Majesty, " in reference to his merits as a writer, coincided in the general approbation which he had so honourably acquired." A decisive proof of the confidence placed in him was his being invited by Count Haugwitz to the Prussian headquarters shortly before the battle of Jena, and commissioned to draw up the Prussian manifesto and the king's letter to Napoleon. It was in noticing this letter that Napoleon spoke of the known and avowed writer as " a wretched scribe named Gentz, one of those men without honour who sell themselves for money." In the course of 1806, he published War between Spain and England, and Fragments upon the Balance of Power in Europe, on receiving which (at Bombay) Mackintosh wrote :—" I assent to all you say, sympathize with all you feel, and admire equally your reason and your eloquence throughout your masterly fragment." The bond of union between him and Metter-nich was formed in 1810. This was one reason, joined to his general reputation, for his being named first secretary to the congress of Vienna in 1814, where, besides his regular duties, he seems to have made himself useful to several of the plenipotentiaries, as he notes in his diary that he received 22,000 florins in the name of Louis XVIII. from Talleyrand, and £600 from Lord Castlereagh, accompanied by "les plus folles promesses." He acted in the same capacity at the congress or conference of Paris in 1815, of Aix in 1818, Karlsbad and Vienna in 1819, Troppau and Laybach in 1820 and 1821, and Verona in 1822. The following entry in his diary for December 14, 1819, has ex-posed him to much obloquy as the interested advocate of reactionary doctrines :—"About eleven, at Prince Metternich's : attended the last and most important sitting of the commission to settle the 13th article of the Bundes-Akt, and had my share in one of the greatest and worthiest results of the transactions of our time. A day more important than that of Leipsic." The 13th article provides that in all states of the Bund the constitutional government shall be by estates instead of by a representative body in a single chamber: " in allen Bundestaaten wird eine landständische Verfassung stattfinden." Remembering what ensued in France from the absorption of the other estates in the Tiers Etat, it would have been strange if Gentz had not supported this 13th article. He was far from a consistent politician, but he was always a sound Conservative at heart; and his reputation rests on his foreign policy, especially on the courage, eloquence, and efficiency with which he made head against the Napoleonic system till it was struck down.

The most remarkable phase of Gentz's declining years was his passion, in his sixty-seventh year, for Fanny Elssler, the celebrated danseuse, which forms the subject of some very remarkable letters to his attached friend Bahel (the wife of Varnhagen von Ense) in 1830 and 1831. He died June 9, 1832. There is no complete edition of his works. The late Baron von Prokesch was engaged in preparing one when the Austrian Government interfered, and the design was perforce abandoned. (A. H.)







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