Allgemeines Landrecht Recodifies Prussian Law

The Allgemeines Landrecht, which codified Prussian civil and criminal laws on the basis of traditional social stratification, contributed to the unification of the various Prussian regions under absolute monarchy. It was thus an important aspect of the growth of Prussia as the central German power and the establishment in the nineteenth century of a German Empire.

Summary of Event

The Allgemeines Landrecht represented the culmination of legal efforts during the eighteenth century in Prussia to collect and codify various royal edicts and laws in order to establish greater unity among the diverse Prussian provincial laws and legal practices. The code also reflected and made clear the tensions between enlightened concepts of natural rights, which were advocated by the code’s principal legal authors, and the traditional, stratified society of an absolute monarchy. Absolute monarchy
[kw]Allgemeines Landrecht Recodifies Prussian Law (June 1, 1794)
[kw]Law, Allgemeines Landrecht Recodifies Prussian (June 1, 1794)
[kw]Prussian Law, Allgemeines Landrecht Recodifies (June 1, 1794)
[kw]Recodifies Prussian Law, Allgemeines Landrecht (June 1, 1794)
[kw]Landrecht Recodifies Prussian Law, Allgemeines (June 1, 1794)
Allgemeines Landrecht
Legal reform;Prussia
[g]Germany;June 1, 1794: Allgemeines Landrecht Recodifies Prussian Law[3130]
[g]Prussia;June 1, 1794: Allgemeines Landrecht Recodifies Prussian Law[3130]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 1, 1794: Allgemeines Landrecht Recodifies Prussian Law[3130]
[c]Government and politics;June 1, 1794: Allgemeines Landrecht Recodifies Prussian Law[3130]
Frederick the Great
Cocceji, Samuel von
Carmer, Johann Heinrich Casimir von
Svarez, Carl Gottlieb
Klein, Ernst Ferdinand
Frederick William I
Frederick William II

In the early eighteenth century, Brandenburg-Prussia Brandenburg-Prussia[Brandenburg Prussia] was composed of more than twenty different territories, ranging from the Rhine in the west to Memel in the east, a distance of more than eight hundred miles. Each province had its own legal system. Moreover, lords of the manor exercised seigneurial justice, while royal justice was divided between ordinary justice and administrative justice (Kammer), serving the interests of the army and royal domains.

To create more legal unity, King Frederick William I in 1714 ordered the law faculty of the University of Halle to collect a law codex for his kingdom. Frederick William I was not successful in creating such a Landrecht for Prussia, but he did introduce an inquisitional process in criminal cases. Under his successor, Frederick the Great, however, judicial reform was pursued much more vigorously in order to increase efficiency and to affirm the king’s authority over the various provinces. Frederick, who was influenced by Montesquieu, Montesquieu the author of De l’esprit des loix (1748; The Spirit of the Laws, 1750), argued that a comprehensive code would reflect the best accomplishments of human reason. On December 31, 1746, the king ordered professor Samuel von Cocceji to collect the royal edicts and prepare a German Landrecht based on reason. Cocceji’s draft, “Projekt des Corporis Juris Fridericiani” (1749-1751; project of Frederick’s body of law), did not become law, although some provinces adopted its provisions on marriage and guardianship.

The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)[Seven Years War] interrupted further efforts at legal reform. By the 1770’s, though, the king was receiving increasing complaints about slow court proceedings. The major impetus for legal reform came in 1779, when Frederick the Great intervened on behalf of the miller Christian Arnold, who had lost a legal case against his landlord. The king dismissed his ineffective grand chancellor, Carl Joseph von Fürst and Kupferberg, and appointed Johann Heinrich Casimir von Carmer as both justice minister and grand chancellor. Von Carmer, president of the Prussian government in Breslau, Silesia, had increased the efficiency in civil trials in Silesia. From Silesia, he brought with him to Berlin two legal assistants, Carl Gottlieb Svarez and Ernst Ferdinand Klein, who played key roles in preparing the civil and criminal sections of the Landrecht. All three were children of the Enlightenment and had solid practical legal backgrounds.

Frederick the Great issued a cabinet order on April 14, 1780, charging von Carmer with the task of producing a code in German that the ordinary Prussian subject could understand. Legal concepts based on Roman law (Justinian’s Code) and Saxon law were to be revised to meet the changing times. For example, slavery was forbidden in Prussia. Frederick the Great never saw the completion of the work he commissioned, but work on the project continued after his death under the new and more conservative king, Frederick William II. The code Allgemeines Gesetzbuch Allgemeines Gesetzbuch (general lawbook) was completed in March, 1791, and was to go into effect on June 1, 1792. However, the radicalization of the French Revolution after 1791 enabled the new king’s conservative advisers to convince him to suspend the code on April 18, 1792. Only in November, 1793, did the king order a revision of the Allgemeines Gesetzbuch, which would eliminate legal limitations placed on the absolute monarch. Finally, fourteen years after the 1780 cabinet order, the new code was accepted on February 5, 1794, and became effective on June 1, 1794, under a new name, Allgemeines Landrecht.

The Allgemeines Landrecht, which was praised by Alexander de Tocqueville, was a collection of both civil and criminal law. Organized in more than nineteen thousand paragraphs, the code required 734 double-column pages of print. The Landrecht was intended to supplement the provincial codes. In cases where the provincial codes did not address an issue, the Landrecht would take precedence. However, since most of the provincial laws were not codified, judges in many regions increasingly relied on the Landrecht for their judgments.

The introduction to the code includes the liberal statement that the general rights Human rights of humans are based on their natural freedoms to further their well-being without harming the rights of others. However, the introduction also makes it clear that special rights and obligations of members of the state depend on their personal relations with each other and with the state. The rights of a person are created by his or her birth, estate, and actions.

Frederick the Great had decreed in 1780 that the Landrecht could not affect the social reality of estates and provincial legal practices. The Landrecht made it clear that each major social group or estate, ranging from nobles and the Bürgerstand (bourgeoisie) Bürgerstand (bourgeoisie)[Burgerstand]
Bourgeoisie to peasants, had special privileges and obligations. Nobles were classified as the first estate, were authorized to own land, and could be judged only by the highest courts in the province. Peasants Peasantry;Prussia could not engage in bourgeois activities or trades without the permission of the state or their lords. They were considered free subjects only outside the nobles’ estates, and they could be punished by their lords for laziness or misbehavior. The Bürgerstand included everyone who did not belong to the nobility or peasantry.

Like the Allgemeines Gesetzbuch of 1791, the Allgemeines Landrecht allowed religious freedom, Religious freedom;Prussia but not public disrespect for religion, for both Christians and Jews. It also stipulated that new laws could not be applied retroactively (or ex post facto). Private property was protected, and the state had to compensate property owners if land was taken. The Landrecht strengthened the rights of the monarch. The rights to issue and repeal all laws and police and to make war and peace were reserved for the monarch as a “right of Majesty.” Laws would go into effect even without the participation of law commissions in cases of disputes. Compared to the 1791 draft, individual rights were reduced in the Landrecht. Eliminated were clauses recognizing the natural freedoms and rights of citizens, which could not be limited by law more than was required by the goals of communal union.


The Prussian legal reforms were similar to those carried out in other eighteenth century European countries. French legal reforms Legal reform;France
Law;France in the later part of the century failed because of the opposition of the parlements, and successful reforms had to wait until the introduction of the Napoleonic Code. Napoleonic Code Within Germany, Law;Germany the kingdom of Bavaria was the first state to introduce a new code in 1756. The Austrian Empire Law;Austria began work on a legal code in 1753, but the civil code was not completed until 1808 (effective 1811). In most of these countries, judicial reforms, although influenced by concepts of natural law, were used to modernize and rationalize laws in order to increase the power of the monarch and the state.

Many parts of the civil code of the Allgemeines Landrecht remained in effect in several provinces of Prussia throughout much of the nineteenth century, but the impact of the French Revolution and Napoleon on Prussia modified many provisions of the code within a generation. The Prussian reforms after 1807 freed the serfs and removed restrictions on property ownership based on estates.

The French introduced the Napoleonic Code on the left bank of the Rhine, and it, not the Landrecht, remained in effect after 1814. Because Napoleonic reforms in Germany eliminated many traditional provincial laws, the Allgemeines Landrecht became the primary law in those areas reunited with Prussia after 1814 (except Kleve). In new areas occupied by Prussia after 1814, ranging from the Rhineland to Saxony and Westphalia, either old law or French law remained in effect. After 1848, the Allgemeines Landrecht was no longer introduced in newly annexed provinces. After German unification in 1871, German national civil laws culminating in the German Civil Code of 1900 replaced the Prussian Landrecht. By 1931, when the last edition of the Allgemeines Landrecht was published, it had been reduced to only two hundred pages.

Further Reading

  • Behrens, C. B. A. Society, Government, and the Enlightenment: The Experiences of Eighteenth-Century France and Prussia. New York: Harper and Row, 1985. Includes an informative chapter on the administration of justice in Prussia and France from Frederick William I to Frederick the Great.
  • Fay, Sidney B. The Rise of Brandenburg-Prussia to 1786. Edited by Klaus Epstein. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. A detailed and reliable administrative history of the state.
  • Gothelf, Rodney. “Frederick William I and the Beginning of Prussian Absolutism, 1713-40.” In The Rise of Prussia, 1700-1830, edited by Philip G. Dwyer. New York: Longman, 2000. Helpful for understanding the polymorphic nature of the Brandenburg-Prussian states.
  • Koch, H. W. A History of Prussia. New York: Longman, 1978. A short but insightful section, which often quotes Alexis de Tocqueville, evaluates both the theoretical basis and the practical application of the 1794 code.
  • MacDonogh, Giles. Frederick the Great: A Life in Deed and Letters. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999. Includes a short discussion of the miller Johannes Arnold case, which helped accelerate judicial reforms.
  • Rosenberg, Hans. Bureaucracy, Aristocracy, and Autocracy: The Prussian Experience, 1660-1815. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966. Includes a short section on Samuel von Cocceji’s judicial reforms.
  • Weill, H. Frederick the Great and Samuel von Cocceji. Madison: University of Wisconson Press, 1961. Summary of Frederick the Great’s legal reforms, particularly useful since most works on von Cocceji are in German.

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