During the eighteenth century, a new movement called the Enlightenment was taking over Europe, which sought to address the grievances of the people. One area in particular where this can be seen is in the Eastern European Despots. Unlike in most countries, where reform happened from the bottom up, the rulers in the Eastern European countries of Prussia, Russia, and Austria brought forward many legal, social, and educational reforms (so long as the reforms did not take away from the ruler’s power). These reforms can be seen in many of the social changes taking place in society, especially in the areas of religion and education.
The Enlightenment was a time of questioning. During this era of history, a great deal of emphasis was placed upon human reasoning, as opposed to religion, like in centuries past. During this time, many of the Despots sought to embrace the ideas of the enlightened thinkers, one in particular being Voltaire, who believed in religious tolerance. This led to an increase acceptance within the governments of the Eastern European Despots, which can especially be seen in the rule of Frederick II of Prussia and Joseph II of Austria.
As a ruler, Frederick II believed in an idea of Universal Religious Toleration. He accepted groups of people, such as Jesuit teachers and Jewish merchants, who he believed would help to further develop the country. To him, it did not matter what God a person worshiped, but rather, what skills they could bring to the nation and what they would do to help his country and his rule. This way of thinking is very different from monarchs past, who would often fight wars in the name of religion, killing off anyone who opposed their beliefs.
The reform of the enlightenment can also be seen in Emperor Joseph II of Austria, who passed the Edict of Tolerance in 1782. This policy removed limits against the practicing different religions, such as Protestant and Orthodox Christianity. Because of the Edict, these communities were allowed to build churches, and restrictions on their education and careers were removed. Joseph also increased the tolerance for Jews by removing many of the Jew-only taxes and dress laws.
Increases in Education
Catherine the Great of Russia believed that in order to advance her country, she needed to “westernize” it. One way she attempted to do this was through major educational reformation. Before her reign, Russia’s educational system was in complete disarray. There were very few primary schools, run by either priests or landowners. To remedy this, Catherine the Great passed the Russian Statute of National Education in 1786. This decree called for the government to set up schools for the education of young children, regardless of wealth. In addition, she believed in the education of people of both genders, as shown through the development of the Smolny Institute for Nobel Maidens, which was the first educational establishment for women in Russia. Catherine believed that through education, individuals could further develop themselves with new knowledge and skills, and could better serve their nation.
The rulers during the Enlightenment Period brought about a great deal of change in the lives of the people. This can be seen in the social changes occurring throughout the countries of Russia, Austria, and Prussia, especially in the areas of education and religion. However, while these reforms were noble, their intensions were not always selfless. In many cases, the Despots adopted these ideas to retain their power and pacify those who desired change. Regardless, many of the complaints of the people were addressed through these reformations, which helped to bring the Eastern European countries in line with the Western World.