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HEINRICH VON STEPHAN (1831-1897)

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Originally appearing in Volume V25, Page 880 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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HEINRICH VON STEPHAN (1831-1897), German statesman, was born at Stolp, in Pomerania, on the 7th of January 1831. From his earliest years he showed that talent for languages to which he owed so much of his success in life,' and before he went to school had acquired a considerable knowledge of Italian, Spanish and English. He was educated at the grammar school of his native town, and at the age of sixteen entered the service of the Prussian post office. His promotion was rapid; he was transferred to East Prussia, and thence to Cologne. Here he added to his salary by writing dramatic criticism, and here he obtained his first acquaintance with the system, or rather lack of system, which with its complication of charges made all international postal correspondence so expensive and uncertain—a system which he was in later years to revolutionize. After passing the examinations which' admitted him to the higher branches of the service he was trans» ferred to Frankfort-on-the-Oder, and in 1856 to Berlin. Many different stories are told of the manner in which his exceptionalknowledge of European languages was brought to the know-ledge of the postmaster-general, who at once saw that capacity and attainments of the kind could best be used at headquarters. During the next few years he was entrusted with very important duties; he was chosen as Prussian representative when a postal treaty was arranged with Spain and Portugal. In 1864 he was given the task of reorganizing the postal service in the conquered duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, and in 1866 it fell to his lot to extend the Prussian system to the newly annexed provinces; he had to take over and replace the system by which for three hundred years the family of Thurn and Taxis had conducted the postal service of central Germany. He also found time to write works on the history of postal matters, viz. a History of the Prussian Post Office (1859), and articles on the means of communication in ancient and medieval times, which appeared in Raumer's Historisches Taschenbuch (1868). He was one of the invited guests at the opening of the Suez Canal, and in 1872 published a work on modern Egypt. In 187o, at the early age of thirty-nine, Stephan was made postmaster-general of the North German confederation, and in the next year of the newly founded empire; in 1878, at the general reorganization of the imperial administration (see article GERMANY) the post office was made a separate department, and his title was altered to that of secretary of state. His great powers of organization were at once shown in the arrangement of the admirable Feld Post, which during the war with France maintained communication with the army in the field. In eight months 89,000,000 letters, 2,500,000 post-cards, and £10,000,000 in money passed through the department, and it was his boast that letters were delivered to and collected from the soldiers with almost unfailing regularity, sometimes even on the field of battle. In this way he began what was the great work of his life, that of making the post office in the tallest sense of the word popular, and henceforth he was unremittingly occupied in devising and adopting new contrivances for the convenience and use of the people. The introduction of post-cards was his first innovation. In this he had been anticipated by Austria, but the idea was his own, and had been. adopted by the Austrians in consequence of a suggestion made by him at a postal conference in 1865. The development of the parcel post and of the system of money orders was his next work, and in this he was so successful that in 1883 the German post office dealt with 79,000,000 parcels, while in all the other countries of the world together only 52,000,000 went through the post. While in this and other ways he extended the use of the post office at borne, he gained a wider celebrity in being the chief promoter of the International Postal Union. He presided at the first conference, which met at Bern in 1874. The alacrity of. Stephan's intelligence and his enthusiasm for the institution over which he presided were shown by the readiness with which, he applied or took over all new inventions which might be of public service, such as telegraphs, telephones and pneumatic tubes. His pride in the post office showed itself in the immediate interest which he took in the design and plan of the new offices which were erected in all parts of Germany; it was always his ambition that the post office in each town should be the most conspicuous and the handsomest of public buildings; even at the sacrifice of economy. He warmly sup-ported Bismarck in his policy of extending and promoting national industry and foreign trade, and arranged the subsidies by which a direct postal service was established between Germany and China and Australia. His national feeling alsq showed itself in the support which he gave to the movement for purifying the German language of foreign words—but he did not always succeed in avoiding the exaggeration verging on the ridiculous into which this movement so easily degenerates, While he stood aloof from ordinary party politics, he was a frequent speaker in the Reichstag on the affairs of his own department, and was a' member of the Bundesrat. Though never on terms of intimate friendship with Bismarck, his mastery in his own department won for him the appreciation of the chancellor, and he was allowed more independence than moat of the officials. By the power of working out broad and general principles in detail and idealizing the routine work of administration he may fairly be placed among the great administrators by whom (far more than by statesmen and politicians) the Prussian state has been built up, and he was singularly fortunate in that his life fell at a time when by perfecting the administration of the newly founded imperial post he took no small part in strengthening the national idea and binding together the German nation. In 1897 blood-poisoning, arising from a wound in the foot, made amputation of the leg necessary, and he died from the effects of the operation, on the 8th of April 1897. See E. Knickeberg, H. v. Stephan (Berlin, 1897). (J. W. HE.)
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