Hegel, Well-Regulated Police States, and Empire


Those who have been keeping track of such things will recall that ten or so years ago, as the Soviet bloc was falling by the wayside, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed "the end of history" in a famous article that he later expanded into a book. There, the neo-conservative writer maintained that history – as the story of large-scale, fundamental struggles between competing blocs, ideologies, or systems – was over. Liberal democracy had triumphed, more or less, and was the final form of human existence. True, there were some pockets of reaction and opposition here and there, but these would only require a few mopping-up operations on the road to global happiness.

This was a depressing message – depressing, at least, for those who had a hard time spotting much liberalism or democracy in the advanced welfare-warfare states of North America, western Europe, and Australasia. Indeed, the argument looked for all the world like an elaborate Hegelian rationalization for continued expansion of the world role of the US empire and its faithful sidekick, the European Union (also doing business as NATO). Certainly, the argument was Hegelian.


I do not wish to discuss the merits of Hegel as a philosopher here. There is a strong element of state-worship, potentially, in Hegel’s system, though he was hardly a co-inventor of fascism or totalitarianism, as claimed, for instance, by Karl Popper. Anglo-Americans find Hegel quite murky. Even so, dialectical reasoning (a mainstay of Hegel’s system) has its uses, if only or mainly in intellectual history.

Hegel, of course, thought that human history embodied the unfolding-in-time of Reason, the World Spirit – a sort of totalizing distillation of all that is rational, progressive, and good. What does that mean? In practical terms, Hegel wrote that the highest possible form of freedom under law was being realized through the rational bureaucratic system of the Prussian monarchy.

Fukuyama’s innovation was to replace Prussia with the United States – or liberal democracy generally – as the final stage of all possible historical development. Very flattering to us, no doubt, and his thesis took off into the stratosphere for a while. Actually, it wasn’t that innovative, since the Hegelian-Jacksonian American historian George Bancroft was already fitting the United States in as the end-term of history as early as the 1840s. Naturally, Bancroft was a Northerner. (Southerners have their faults, but – with the glaring exception of Woodrow Wilson – inventing big world-healing historical trajectories is seldom one of them.)

That is the problem with secularizing eschatologies (doctrines about final things). Torn from their religious moorings, they tend to be quite misleading, like the Book of Revelation, say, with social classes substituted for good and evil. That was the point of my last column. It was not an attack on Protestantism, although one reader seems to have read it that way.

Hegel’s philosophy of history seems a case in point. Just as you can try to put Cromwell into Daniel 2, so too can anyone put his favorite nation, social class, or ideology at the end of Hegel’s teleology. To the extent that this is accepted, it tends to stifle debate by bringing in the notion of inevitability.


At this risk of going all dialectical myself, I think I can reconcile the claims of Hegel, Bancroft, and Fukuyama. The end-form of all human striving is in fact the Prussian monarchy and the US empire. This is true to the extent that the American leaders have, perhaps through the "cunning of reason" (a key concept of Hegel’s) – Prussianized their country. This may take some explaining.

In a very interesting piece written for a symposium on total war,1 Alf Lüdtke says that much writing on political violence "ignores the perpetual internal ‘small war,’ designed by authorities to suppress or keep at bay all those whom they considered ‘dangerous.’"2 This had long been an essential part of state-building, formalized under the 17th-century concept of the well-regulated police state. This was not, I hasten to add, the sort of modern police state which breaks down peoples’ doors at three in the morning and hauls them off, never to be seen again. That was a 20th-century development, for the most part.

No, the traditional police state involved a lot of policing: a lot of surveillance and record keeping, so that everything would be predictable and ordentlich. It was picky, fussy, orderly, irascible, and arbitrary, but never as effective, thorough, and occasionally ruthless as modern-day police in the much-touted American democracy. According to Lüdtke, 19th-century Prussian policing only approached modern "liberal" levels of repression when the army itself was involved in policing civil society.


There were purely civil constables in Prussia down to 1848, but the army claimed the right to do a good deal of the policing there. (This is referred to as its Supermagisterium, or "final say"). This claim was made good in normal times, but grew mightily in during emergencies. In July 1870, the Prussian King, as executive of the North German Confederation, announced a "state of siege" in frontier districts in connection with the war with France. In September, a certain General Vogel von Falckenstein detained a number of citizens (socialists) who were agitating for immediate peace, now that Napoleon III’s armies had been defeated. This was back when socialists were still interested in peace.

The General, a good bureaucratic militarist, reasoned that advocacy of peace was "treason." Well, what else could it be? The "security of the state" was at stake.

Prussians had acquired in the 1850s a bill of rights. Civil institutions existed to give life to these. So it was that in early 1877 a court fined the good General for infringing the rights of the citizens detained in 1870. Otto von Bismarck, Ministerpräsident and chief advisor to the King of Prussia, was quite unhappy, but advised that the treasury should pay the fine and Falckenstein’s legal costs on the grounds that the General had acted in his official capacity in 1870.

Why should Bismarck so uncharacteristically yield to a mere civilian court? He did so in part because the German Empire, founded in 1871 by the inclusion of several German states formerly not part of the North German Confederation, was not the centralized state which Anglo-Americans typically imagine it was. There were structural limits to the power of the Prussian King in his role as German Emperor.

In other words, the case had arisen in Braunschweig, one of the constituent states of the Reich, and not in Prussia. In Prussia, Bismarck could have had the case overturned. Here, the residual monarchical federalism of the Reich raised a barrier to full-scale militarization. As Lüdtke puts it, "a fundamental principle of the Reich’s constitution" was "the preservation of the German states. The Reich was established not to absorb but to sustain and link these given political and monarchical entities." The drawback, from the centralizers’ standpoint, was "that regulations that were valid in Prussia were not necessarily binding in other states."3 Think about this, the next time the typically conventional American historian informs you that "states rights" has always been a mere reactionary tactic in US politics and that nobody ever really believed in it.


I can’t say if cases like the one summarized by Lüdtke happened very often. What is interesting is his further account of what the Prussian army (or the new, military-style gendarmerie after 1848) did, when acting in its policing role. It "often controlled speeding carriages or prohibited smoking in public places." It "patrolled more frequently" than civilian constables had. Soldiers also enforced school attendance laws, "intervened in schools as well [as] in urban neighborhoods to implement compulsory medical examinations," and "searched houses for the mentally ill."4

This is worse than Woody Allen’s monster with the body of a lobster and the head of a social worker – and what a lovely set of social reforms! Perhaps arguments could be made for these regulations, but to enforce them with an army raises interesting questions. In Prussia, it seems, the police were not mere agents of civil society as in English-speaking countries, but were extensions of the abstract sovereign power itself.

A Berlin police bureaucrat, Albert Ballhorn, wrote in 1852 that "it is in the nature of police to be in a permanent war with everybody in the state and society; thus it serves the common weal." Serve and protect. Ballhorn also saw a need "to train and educate every police officer in an academic and scientific way."5


It is time for us superior Anglo-Americans to wipe the silly grins off our faces. The items rehearsed above should be sounding very familiar. For all our vaunted "rule of law" and "natural rights," it appears that we have acquiesced in, or even demanded, the militarization of American police, down to the local level. Prussianization, you might call it. Old Andy of Mayberry is gone. His successors have helicopters, tanks, all manner of explosive "devices" – remember the one that leveled several blocks of Philadelphia? And do they wear military-style uniforms? Just look around. Watch cop shows on TV, if you have the stomach for it. (I’ve quit doing so.) Further, we are witnessing the complete federalization of American police departments, which generally goes faster under the "states rights" Republicans. (Now we know who it is that treats states rights as a mere slogan.) I will merely mention in passing my refrain that much of this unhappy process is directly a spill-over effect of overseas empire.

If you give some haberdasher the power to declare war on his own motion, don’t be surprised if he and his bureaucrats gain a lot of power along the way. Oh, I’m sorry, did I say war? Everyone knows that the brutal war in Korea was a police action. Let them play these games for half a century, and you should not be surprised when they wish to rule at home with the same finesse they typically display in their colonies.

In America, instead of having the army do the police work, we have militarized the police. Of course the war on drugs (nice metaphor) has created so much overlap that it is harder and harder to tell the difference. Differences still exist – on paper – but the 18th-century grocery list isn’t doing us as much good as it once did. Still, I’m happy enough about my thesis. If you allow for all the little nuances, the World Spirit has called a halt to history in the Prussian form, but tricked us again by doing it in North America. Thanks Hegel, Bancroft, and Fukuyama. And have a nice century.


  1. Alf Lüdtke, "The Permanence of Internal War: The Prussian State and Its Opponents, 1870-71,” in Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler, eds., On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861-1871 (Cambridge: Cambrige University Press, 1997), pp. 377-392.
  2. Ibid., p. 377.
  3. Ibid., p. 391.
  4. Ibid., pp. 381, 390. Sometimes Lüdtke seems to be speaking of the Schutzmannschaft (gendarmerie), founded in the wake of the Revolution of 1848, and not the regular army. Since the former was entirely modeled on the army, and replaced the former system of constables, the difference between police and army remains minimal.
  5. Ibid., pp. 386, 388.