Absolutism in Prussia Austria and Russia
Frederick II, Catherine the Great, and Joseph II all based their ideals upon or representative of ones own opinions, founded upon their enlightened wisdom or righteous way of thinking.
All three rulers based many of their attempted reforms on the ideals of the philosophes, French for the "philosopher", who sought reason as their main lawmaker. However, in the case of serfdom, there was only one ruler that was able to abolish it and that was Joseph II. He did meet great opposition, especially when the nobles and the church became alienated by this new establishment. Joseph also established a new penal code that abrogated the death penalty and established the principle of equality of all. Frederick II was aware of the philosophes condemnation of serfdom, however, he chose to not interfere with it. Frederick also granted limited freedom of speech and press, as well as religious toleration, however the notion that all were equal was not evident in his rule. Catherine the Great saw all people as equal and she questioned the institutions of serfdom, torture, and capital punishment, however her attempts at reform hardly made a real change.
Catherine the Great of Russia
Catherine the Great sought for a well ordered government, achieving policy using a more bureaucratic approach, lacking of force which her predecessors had used. Although the use of “Russification” was in effect in one instance of her reign during which the Cossach Sech was abolished, she did avoid force at all costs when she dealt with religious issues.
Joseph II was the only enlightened despot to actually make radical changes including the Toleration Patent, passed in 1781, which allowed Lutherans, Calvinists, and Greek Orthodox to worship in private. To put it simply, all subjects were equal. Furthermore, Joseph II did attempt to allow the Jews to have more freedom to work and move around; however they were still unable to own property. Fredrick II was able to expand German holdings by way of a well disciplined and strong army. Furthermore, he instituted significant legal reforms, set up trade monopolies, thereby creating new industries, improved education, and he improved the info structure pertaining to drainage systems, roads, and canals.
All three despots may have made positive movement towards reform, however, the end result was less than ideal for some. Frederick II was able to procure Silesia for Prussia, but he used great force and this was unlike his predecessors before. Was this a failure, many say it was, since men that did have a voice of reason during the reigns of Catherine and Joseph had no voice at all during Frederick's reign.
Frederick’s society had turned more aristocratic and commoners no longer were able to hold office, which left some resentment in the lower classes. Joseph’s reforms were overwhelming for Austria as he tried to force non-Germans to speak one language, which was contradictory to his previous religious reform which tolerated the practice of ones own religion. His reform that included the abolishment of serfdom was not exactly received well, even by the serfs themselves. There was great resentment within the noble class that had accepted the role of serfs, and now that they were free, made the working lands a place of bitterness in both classes. Catherine’s policies greatly favored the landed nobility, and this angered the Russian peasantry. The strict restrictions of serfdom led to a revolt that killed more than 1500 estate owners. Catherine responded with even great repression for the serfs and all reforms had halted on this matter.
Frederick II, Catherine the Great, and Joseph II all considered themselves disciples of the Enlightenment and expressed interest in reforms based on the philosophes ideals. However, none of the reforms stemmed from enlightened principles, as all three rulers were driven in the direction of absolute power for their states.