When East Germany Was a Center of the World

A look at the first globalization.

When East Germany Was a Center of the World

Only in the 1980s did the term “early modern” gain wide acceptance for the period between about 1400 and about 1800. Since calendars are made up of arbitrary numbers and human judgment is retrospective, periodization remains an open question in professional history: what, if anything, does our term for a period have to do with that period’s characteristics? But two groups believe that “early modern”  is uniquely apposite as a way to describe this time: historians of Europe, and historians of Southeast Asia. Because this was the period that the world truly became globalized, the idea that the early modern period is structurally unique is congenial to historians of multiple global regions; conversely, it is early modernists who have most eagerly taken to global history. The early modern period is the prehistory of globalization.

Within this newly interconnected world, changes took place in multiple locations contemporaneously: changes in human interactions with one another and in human interactions with the physical world. The ways these developments were interconnected can be divided into three categories.

Firstly, similar developments took place in different societies independently, for reasons internal to these societies. The population of numerous areas in Europe and Asia increased. Human social networks grew and became more complex, differentiated, and sophisticated: this process included economic expansion and monetization of economies. It also included the eventual development and centralization of states and state institutions. At the end of the early modern period, politics in Europe were fundamentally modern.

External causes also led to similar developments in different societies. Climate change caused natural disasters, famines, and political instability across Eurasia. Similarly, even before widespread European contact with the rest of the world, gunpowder weapons diffused from China into Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The terms “military revolution” in early modern European history and “gunpowder empire” among historians of the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Iran, and the Mughal Empire describe a similar thesis from different points of view: that the adoption and development of these weapons contributed to the changes in the relationships among the state, society, and the armed forces I described in the previous paragraph.

Thirdly, the same developments took place in different societies dependently, one being the result of the other. For instance, the Spanish Empire and the Chinese Empire were two halves of a world-wide circuit in silver, which was mined in South America and traded to Asia. In the first half of the seventeenth century, the Spanish empire redirected this silver to pay for three contemporary wars in Europe—not only the Thirty Years War, but also wars against the Netherlands and France. This disturbance in the money supply in China contributed to the collapse of the Ming dynasty in the second half of the century.

These global currents are perceptible in one of their little eddies, this porcelain tankard.

In the first place, it’s huge: 7 5/16 inches broad, 6 3/16 inches deep, and 8 7/8 inches tall. That is the height of a fifteen inch laptop or a sheet of standard paper. The cover and its thumb lever and hinge are silver-gilt; the body hard-paste porcelain glazed in the style of contemporary Chinese porcelains, bordered top and bottom in gold. This chinoiserie beer stein was produced around 1725 in Meissen, the porcelain capital of the first porcelain-producing country in Europe, the east German state of Saxony.         

Porcelains from East Asia, like those on which this tankard was based, were just one example of ramifying international networks of commodities. During the early modern period, the consumption and use in Europe of these goods expanded. Trade in colonial goods grew faster than other imports to the German lands during the eighteenth century. In the early eighteenth century the display or commission of porcelain objects and the consumption of these foods and drinks signaled status, although they rapidly spread down the social scale. But beer was not only stereotypically northern European, its production was highly localized—it still is, in what are now Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic. You can taste the water of a place in the beer it brews. This tankard is poised between high culture and low culture at the same time: the global and the local, the luxurious and the plebeian, the splendid and the earth. The fantasy Chinese men painted delicately on it sit amid decorative leaves which unfurl like kale.

But I don’t think this stein’s intended audience would have felt this frisson, viewing it. Although the rise of porcelain in Europe is associated with the expansion of global foods and drinks, many Europeans did not consume luxury imported foods out of their luxury porcelains. In central Europe, as opposed to Habsburg Spain, porcelain was often more for display than for use. Royals displayed porcelain vessels or porcelain tiles in special rooms, like the porcelain room in the palace at Oranienburg in Brandenburg, formed between 1652 and 1667. This practice extended to entire residences, like the Japanese Palace in the Saxon city of Dresden, built 1715, expanded 1729-1731, and restored 1951-present. Even if this tankard had been used, drinking beer out of a massive porcelain tankard may not have been as refined as washing your hands in a porcelain rose water fountain or drinking chocolate from a porcelain chocolate cup, but beer was not exclusively plebeian. It was served at the Saxon court.

Porcelain had been traded globally since the tenth century AD, but around the year 1500 Portuguese merchants came into contact with the trade networks of the Indian Ocean and the trade in porcelain expanded to include Europe and New Spain. European merchants also commissioned works from Chinese potters, in the reverse of the process that created this beer stein. Porcelain was produced, appreciated, and used within these reinforcing circuits of influence and counter-influence. One Portuguese nobleman commissioned a graceful ewer from the porcelain center of Jingdezhen in the shape of a Persian spouted pot, glazed with his coat of arms in blue on white. On his return trip from China the ewer may have broken; it was repaired in Persia with a silver cap, and silver at the tip of its spout.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, exports of Chinese porcelain to Europe grew substantially. This was interrupted by the civil wars around the collapse of the Ming dynasty. Disruptions in the porcelain trade from China during these wars led to increased demand for replacements from Japan and Vietnam, or more local replacements from the Netherlands. Although extremely popular, the latter was soft-paste porcelain, not hard-paste porcelain, which is hard, pure white, and can be worked to translucency, and which Europeans were attempting to figure out how to produce themselves. From the Thirty Years War, to the collapse of Spanish silver, to the Ming-Qing transition, to shifts in the porcelain trade, to attempts to produce porcelain in Europe: global events circuited back on one another in a web that has no weaver.

Although it is now unimportant, the east German state of Saxony was a major node in these international networks of trade and violence. Friedrich Augustus I (1670-1733) called the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, was not the first European prince to collect Chinese and Japanese porcelain, or to hold lavish feasts in which food and drink were consumed on a massive scale and rich goods were displayed. But manufacturers in Saxony during his reign were the first to make true porcelain in Europe, in 1708. Saxony was wealthy and rich in raw materials, and already home to industries which contributed to the development of porcelain and glazes, like mining, metallurgy, the processing of chemicals, and glassmaking. So did alchemy, which investigated the secrets of the natural world. The Saxon electors patronized these industries, even practiced some of them, for their own benefit. This benefit was social as well as economic; I wrote about early modern heads of state turning ivory because of its symbolic importance here.

Augustus the Strong sponsored porcelain manufacture to raise revenue for his centralizing state, and because producing and owning porcelain cast luster upon his own magnificence. So, later, did other princes across central Europe. Exporting porcelain integrated the political entities of this fragmented region into broader markets to the west. Some central European porcelains were reproductions of Chinese and Japanese pieces, while just as Chinese manufactories made porcelains to European specifications, European manufactories also made Europeanified versions of Chinese goods. Some later eighteenth-century Chine de commande was made for the European market in Meissen style.

The early modern period was also characterized by unprecedented catastrophes; and, because the world was globally interconnected, these catastrophes were also global. The beautiful goods in this article were produced and used within contexts of violence and exploitation. The migrant laborers in the porcelain factories at Jingdezhen worked under appalling conditions for low wages whether the product was intended for circulation within China or outside it. Augustus the Strong and his vassals possessed no overseas colonies, but they consumed and traded in chocolate, coffee, sugar, and spices that were produced by forced and enslaved labor; large-scale plantation production of these commodities also had ecological effects like deforestation, erosion, and the spread of disease.

Objects not only expressed social relationships, they also engendered them. As a state monopoly, Saxon porcelain provided funding to maintain the standing army, founded in 1683. This beer stein is not only a product of expanding networks of global interaction, it is a material asset of a state in the process of knitting itself together, passing from a way of making war characterized by the intermittent use of contractors which were at least partially self-funded, to the constant employment of a standing army which was funded more by the state than by private individuals. These soldiers ware also imbricated in violent relationships in many ways, as agents, recipients, and middlemen of violence: in addition to their function as troops, eighteenth-century soldiers were used as factory labor.

This beer stein was a product of global and Europe-wide violence, and a support for it. When it was made, Augustus the Strong’s dominion of Saxony-Poland-Lithuania had just ended the Great Northern War victoriously. Saxony would not be so fortunate in the wars of the coming century.

Featured image is Prussia and the German States, by S. Augustus Mitchell