Circa 1762, in a quiet part of Prussia (now part of Poland), just south of the little village of Züllichan, there lay a small, quiet mill on a sizable stream, known to the locals as Crabmill (Krebsmühle). Operated by a Mr. Arnold, generations of local millers had plied their trade there, grinding rye and barley. Arnold paid rent to his landlord, Major Graf von Schmettau.

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In the beginning ….

At the time:

“All Prussian subjects were divided for judicial purposes into the legally privileged and non-privileged. To the latter category belong the peasants, the artisans and most of the middle class; to the former, in general, the nobility and the higher bureaucracy.”1

And ministers of the church. Worse, each class had their own court system.

Arnold sold the mill to his son and new daughter-in-law Rosine, who gaily ran the mill.

At first unbeknownst to husband and wife, a local nobleman, Freyherr Baron von Gersdorf, who lived upstream, partly damned the watercourse to build a fishpond. By 1773, “want of water” sent the mill into insolvency. The Arnolds could not pay the rent to Schmettau and complained to him of the actions of his fellow nobleman Gersdorf. Gerdorf argued Grotius, ancient Roman law, and a remote local ordinance of 1566, to support his contention that he had the right to put down his fishpond. Schmettau said he did not care: he wanted his rent. The Arnolds are able to make partial payments only. Schmettau sued them in his own manorial or feudal court at Pommerzig, managed by a Herr Schleker, who sits at the call of Schmettau. During several court hearings, Rosine raised the conflict of interest, which Schleker responded to by jailing her for contempt of court.

In 1775, Rosine Arnold became aware of the presence of the king of Prussia, Frederick the Great, in nearby Crossen. She wrote up a petition which she had presented to the king which asked for an impartial judge in her husband’s dispute with Schmettau. The petition did nothing but incite Schleeker. In 1778, he ordered the sale of the mill to pay Schmettau’s back rent. The Arnolds took the only avenue for appeal that existed at that time in Prussia, to the Regierung (College of Judges) at Neumark, but all those appeals were dismissed.

The mill was sold to the local collector who turfed the Arnolds off the property, and sold it again, this time to none other than Gerdorf.

The Mid-Game

And here begins the soft belly of the story as the almost incredible series of events culminates in a monumental change to Prussian and German law.

Arnold got word to his brother, then serving in the Prussian army under the King’s brother, Leopold. Leopold mentioned the Miller Arnold case to his brother Frederick the Great (image).

In 1779, the Arnolds make yet another petition to the King. The king convened a roving commission of two; one, a local judge and the other, an army colonel. The commissioners took evidence. On September 27, the soldier gave his opinion to the King favouring relief for the Arnolds. The King was smitten with this report and sent it to his minister of justice with the words:

“Swift! Get me justice for these Arnolds!”2

Two days later, he received the dissenting and very short opinion of the other Commissioner:Frederick the Great

“All correct as it stood.”

Frederick was apparently livid. Within weeks, he received yet another petition from the Arnolds. He again sent it to his judges who replied that the original judgments against the Arnolds was:

“Right in every particular.”

Frederick was ill with gout when he received his final decision on December 11, 1779. He ordered the Chief Justice Fürst, and the three other judges who had participated in the decision, to appear before him that very day. One of the judges, Rannsleben, left a detailed account of the interview in his autobiography, supplemented by the transcript of an official reporter was also present.

Early in the conversation, the Chief Justice Fürst interrupted the King to correct him on a point of detail. Frederick relieved him of his duties – and from the meeting – on the spot.

With Fürst gone, Frederick continued unabated with the other three judges, lambasting them for putting his Royal name on their judgments. The words attributed to the King were:

“”My name to such a thing?! When was I found to oppress a poor man for love of a rich?

“Had you wigs a fathom long, and books on your back, and acts of 1566 by the hundredweight, what could it help if the right of a poor man were left by you trampled underfoot?

“Dispensers of right in God’s name and mine? I will make an example of you and you shall be remembered!

“Out of my sight!”

And at that, the three remaining judges quickly left the room. But the king followed them and ordered them to “wait there”.

The Epiphany

Sick and angry, Frederick the Great then dictated the Protocol of December 11, 1779, an amazing document which changed the course of law in Europe forever:

“With respect to this most unjust sentence against the Miller Arnold … to the end that all courts of justice, in all the king’s provinces, may take warning thereby, and not commit the like glaring unjust acts…

“That the least peasant, yea, what is still more, that even a beggar, is, no less than his Majesty, a human being, and one to whom due justice must be meted out.

“All men being equal before the law, if it is a prince complaining against a peasant, or vice versa, the prince is the same as the peasant before the law; and, on such occasions, pure justice must have its course, without regard of person. Let the law courts, in all the provinces, take this for their rule.

“(A) court of law doing injustice is more dangerous and pernicious than a band of thieves. Against these one can protect oneself. But against rogues who made use of the cloak of justice to accomplish their evil passions, again such no man can guard himself.”

The Protocol was an international sensation, as it brought right into the very Royal chamber of a European monarchy the ideal so recently revealed in the 1776 American Declaration of Independence … “that all men are created equal”: rex debet esse sub lege, quia lex facit regem.

Catherine the Great of Russia (she was born in Pomerania, Germany in 1729), made sure her judges received a copy. In France, just as the French Revolution was about to ignite (1789), the Protocol was printed and exhibited in shop windows. Voltaire was a confident of Fredrick, as he was to Catherine. The French Revolution of 1789 produced dramatic declarations of the equality of all men; copied from or inspired by similar documents in the new United States of America.

Frederick the Great’s gesture was not entirely selfless. England had, well over a hundred years earlier, dared to behead its king. France was growing restless with the abuses by King Louis XVI and his ostentatious wife, Marie-Antoinette. At home, Frederick faced a restless working class, under significant unemployment because of the ravages of never-ending war, and the Industrial Revolution.

But still, that one concept, which a monarch deigned use in a legal document, asserting the equality of all men, is now at the core of the constitutions of every free and democratic society, and represented a giant leap for law and justice in Europe.

Back in Berlin, the nobility, the upper class knew who to support. Their carriages lined up in front of the house of the deposed Chief Justice Fürst, as a discreet but direct way of showing their displeasure.

The peasants showed their approval by showing up at the gates of the Royal Palace, many armed with petitions of their own, and each claiming that they had been subjected to treatment even worse than the Arnolds. For many years, litigants reminded Prussian judges of the protocol.

One of the king’s protégés who was a lawyer (Zedlick), dared to politely question the King on his Protocol. Frederick’s memorable reply:

“You think I don’t understand your advocate fellows and their quirks; or how they can polish up a bad cause, and by their hyperboles exaggerate or extenuating as they find it? (…) I know the advocate sleight-of-hand and will not be taken in.”

As the slow wheels of communication delivered the astounding statement by a reigning monarch, that all men are equal before the law, the three judges were sent to prison. There, they were joined by other judges would participated in the litany of injustice towards Mr. and Mrs. Arnold. Eventually, the king got back to their fate and three weeks later, two of them were released. All the others were dismissed from office, sentenced to one year imprisonment and ordered to reimburse the Arnolds.

• Postscript #1: In 1785, Leopold was stationed on the Oder River when a flood broke out, uprooting trees and houses. Observing some locals drowning, the Prussian prince set out alone in a small boat to help out. But it was a tragic mistake; he drowned himself.

• Postscript #2: After the death of Frederick the Great in 1786, Gersdorf found a very enthusiastic ear when he asked the local court to reopen the case. The court reinstated his right to create his fishpond and ordered Arnold to reimburse to the dismissed judges the money he received! The Miller Arnold case officially ended when Frederick’s successor quietly reimbursed the judges for Arnold.

• Postscript #3: As a result of World War II, many parts of Prussia changed hands between Germany and Poland. The Arnold’s mill was situated on just such a piece of land is now located inside of Poland. Germany is reluctant to promote this amazing story of legal history because it is in Poland and reminds them of lost glory. Poland has little interest in promoting this amazing story because it is a legacy of Prussian occupation.