Frank Hatje:

Communicating Networks:

Ferdinand Beneke (1774—1848) and His Diaries



Back To Chapter 1, 2 & 3


4.            Communicating and Networking

When Beneke moved to Hamburg in 1796 these networks were not at his disposal automatically. Actually, in terms of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory he neither disposed of an economic, nor of a considerable social capital in town. Hence, he decided „a) in any case to try to subsist a year without financial assistance by persons from Hamburg [...], b) to get acquainted with as many people as possible [...], c) to gain Sieveking’s heart, and d) to carry out the proper ceremonies [...]“ (18.2.1796).

The first point is interesting, because it is related to Beneke’s cultural capital. He knew that he had to behave according to the conventions of the upper middle class and the respectable status of his profession, if he wanted to achieve and keep that particular social status he aimed at without any financial basis. The reputation he acquired and the networks he constructed by investing his cultural capital completely compensated for his permanent lack of money indeed.

The second point was crucial and played a predominant role in his diaries. They apparently served as a medium of social or network book-accounting during his first decade in Hamburg. Beneke recorded, whom he visited, who else was present, whom he had talked with at a soiree or a dinner, who came along to see him, and so forth. He also recorded all letters he received and wrote. In addition he added after each name, when and where he had mentioned that particular person in his diary the last time before. Therefore it would be possible to describe and analyse the growth of his network almost mathematically. But this would not be a simple task. During 70 days in 1799 – a haphazardously chosen sample – Beneke mentioned 762 face-to-face contacts and another 116 in written communication with at least 331 persons.

Theoretically we can distinguish three categories of networks among Beneke’s records: (1) family, kinship and friendship, (2) institutions of a political public, and (3) professional connections.

(1) Particularly from his mother’s side Beneke had some relatives living in Hamburg, and especially during his first years he regularly saw them. But apparently a group of friends, I’ll talk about in a few moments, was even more important. For Beneke was received among their families, as if he was a relative, and thus partook in their networks.

(2) Shortly after Beneke arrived in Hamburg he became a member of a voluntary society (a so-called ‘Montagsgesellschaft’) which – like the ‘Patriotic Society’, which he joined a little later – debated subjects concerning Hamburg’s political, economical, and social constitutions and ran a charity school. And in his 40s Beneke was among those who initiated a Bible and a Missionary Society in Hamburg.

(3) Finally, in order to make a living as an advocate or to be elected into any office he had to make himself known. However, there were institutionalized forms of networking for that, and these were the ceremonies which Beneke referred to in his fourth point. Yet, it is difficult to keep the categories apart. Of course, the Town Hall and the Stock Exchange were places of professional communication, but even there his communication was not limited to matters of law, and people from all three categories constantly mixed at the opulent dinners or other sociable events and therefore were named in Beneke’s registers.

After his marriage, after he felt being established, and after the turmoil of the French occupation, he reduced his habit of mentioning his contacts and limited it to those of personal importance to him: his family, friends, people sharing his political and religious beliefs, conversations of a certain significance to him, and so on. By then, his communication within the networks of the urban elite was very much part of his everyday life and especially of his professional life, so that he did not find it worth mentioning in particular. The late Dr Beneke, though, still kept an annual balance of the more select contacts, which gives us an impression of continuity and change in the inner circle of his networks.

The third point quoted earlier – i. e. „gain Sieveking’s heart“ – leads us towards the interrelation between communication and networking at a level beneath the institutions of „bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit“.

Georg Heinrich Sieveking was one of the wealthiest and politically most influential merchants in Hamburg. Two of his brothers were members of the Senate, and he was married to Johanna Margaretha, a daughter of the Reimarus family, about whom Almut Spalding knows much more than I do, and sister of Christine Reimarus who married the French ambassador Karl Reinhard in 1796. Hence, it is no surprise that the open-minded sociability of the Sieveking household was one of the most important centres of Enlightenment thought, republicanism, and pro-French attitudes in Hamburg.

Knowing that Beneke and Sieveking (like others among Beneke’s first contacts in Hamburg) were Freemasons, we might – for good reasons – be inclined to assume that the masonic network was involved here. Yet, Beneke’s diary tells us a different story. At Halle university Beneke belonged to a Jacobine circle. One of his friends, Hensler, went to France to fight on the side of the revolution. In 1794 Beneke sent him a letter, which passed through Sieveking’s hands. Hensler had authorised Sieveking to open his correspondence and to take care that neither Hensler himself, nor his Jacobine connections could be traced. Since Sieveking was afraid that some passages in Beneke’s letter to Hensler might be compromising, if they were intercepted, he handed it over to Johann Friedrich Reichardt with some instructions for Beneke how the latter could correspond with Hensler more safely. Reichardt, known to Beneke as the host of the Halle Jacobine circle at Burg Giebichenstein, had been dismissed as a musical director in Berlin in 1794 for political reasons and therefore took his refuge in Hamburg, where he stayed with the Sievekings. So he was a trustworthy intermediary. However, Beneke felt embarrassed that a stranger had read the rather personal contents of his lines to Hensler. So he decided to introduce himself to Sieveking by writing to him. Shortly after that Beneke asked Sieveking to support his emigration plans to America, which Sieveking silently sabotaged to Beneke’s benefit (for he didn’t even speak English). Anyway, the two met personally a few days after Beneke had moved to Hamburg, and he fairly rapidly got acquainted with the members of the Sieveking-Reimarus circle.

Also at Halle university Beneke made friends with two evenly Jacobine-minded students of medicine from Hamburg, Johann Jakob Rambach and Henri de Chaufepié. In Hamburg they introduced Beneke to other like-minded citizens. Some of them he had already got to know while working on his dissertation at Göttingen, who later became members of the Senate. In the course of the years a more or less fixed group of men evolved who regularly convened – though rather in the spirit of sociability than framed as a club (Schuchmacher-Kreis). Interestingly enough, many of them did not only sympathize with the French revolution, but also shared their republicanist patriotism in relation to Hamburg, which they displayed by being members of the Patriotic Society, and voluntarily committed themselves to work for the General Poor Relief.

The secretary of the French ambassador and ardent supporter of the French Republic, Georg Kerner, belonged to this circle, whenever he stayed in Hamburg. He was a medical doctor and acquainted with Rambach and Chaufepié since they had studied at Halle. Kerner’s business as a secretary primarily was to collect information. When he got to know Beneke in 1796, he invited him to see the ambassador Reinhard, who had just been appointed by Paris, but not yet accepted by the governments in Hamburg and Bremen. Negociations were complicated, and Reinhard was preparing his first trip to Bremen to present his credentials. Beneke, on the other hand, knew about the political relationships in Bremen particularly well, because he had grown up there and still was in contact with a number of friends in politically high-ranking positions, like the Elderman Vollmers, whom Beneke called „the Bremish Sieveking“. So Beneke became an intermediary and his network part of the triangular flow of information amongst Hamburg, Bremen and France.

Beneke’s chief goal was to achieve a close communication between the northern German city republics, in fact, he dreamed of reviving the Hanseatic League. This idea gained momentum in 1813, when a group of anti-Napoleonic exiles organised and coordinated the military and political fight for the liberation of Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck. Carl Georg Curtius and Johann Michael Gries (both former and later Syndics of the Senate of Lübeck and Hamburg respectively) belonged to this group, moreover some of the leading ‘patriots’ from Hamburg, like the famous publisher Friedrich Perthes, who was a close friend to Beneke, and of course Beneke himself. Within this group Beneke was in charge of the communication among the hanseatic troops, between the head-quarters in neutral Mecklenburg and the diplomatic emissaries negotiating with the allied powers. Beneke was particularly apt at doing so, both in general and because he was on good terms with a number of high-ranking officials in the Prussian administration in Berlin, like Ludwig von Vincke, who had assisted Freiherr vom Stein in his constitutional reforms, or Christian Friedrich Scharnweber, who was involved in Hardenberg’s rural reforms.

During the Congress of Vienna, when the independence of the hanseatic cities was at stake, and later on, when the Free Cities had to coordinate their politics at the level of the German Federation, Senator and burgomaster of Bremen Johann Smidt played a crucial role. He seems to have been an even greater master of networking and communicating than Beneke. However, Smidt was a friend of Beneke’s from their school-days on. Since the majority of Hamburg’s Senate preferred to sail an autonomous course, Smidt had to be provided with detailed background information on persons and opinions, and Beneke was the man to gather and transmit them. He could advise whom Smidt should contact confidentially, and in fact among the Hamburgers who corresponded with Smidt those are prevailing who were part of the more intimate networks of Beneke’s.

5.             Conclusion

Let me come to a conclusion. What I was able to present you, was no comprehensive study, of course, but rather some fragmentary impressions. We shall be able to study the complexity of networking and communication in an urban society more profoundly (and more easily), when Ferdinand Beneke’s diaries and correspondence will be edited, the commentary will be finished, and the whole will be published at last. The first volumes hopefully will be available in a year or two. However, what conclusions can we draw so far?

First, the making of „bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit“ was far more complex than is generally assumed. The products of the printing press provided the public with an important medium, but voluntary associations and similar institutions of the public were far more important and they rested on a broad basis of daily communication. Methodologically, membership in the same institution did not imply more than a certain like-mindedness at times.

Secondly, if we want to explain Hamburg’s role as a communication and information hub, we may not separate communication from networking and vice versa. Undoubtedly even the institutions of the literary or political public functioned as networks and networking agencies, and if we look at the networks recorded in our sources, we cannot help watching them communicate all the time. Unfortunately, we are not always told what exactly these people were talking about, but it is evident that networks exist because their participants communicate with each other.

Thirdly, networking is a highly complex issue. Relationships among schoolmates and fellow-students, family and kinship, and professional group structures form separate communication networks of a remarkable constancy. Networks were essential to acquire and maintain a position in an urban society. Ceremonies and sociability supported it and were aligned with it. But virtuosos (like Smidt, Sieveking, Beneke, Perthes) had an accomplished ability to fuse networks, and hence to accelerate or multiply the flow of information. Presumably, there were more such virtuosos than we know – at least among the mercantile and academic elite of Hamburg, which therefore could function as a communication and information hub.

Ironically, in Beneke’s case this ability reached beyond his death – insofar as his diaries communicate his networks to us.

Textfeld: Beneke–Edition