A state built on philosophy and military might

Iron Kingdom

December 22, 2006

It has become fashionable to emphasise the role of contingency in history and the open-endedness of the past, but it is impossible to contemplate the history of Prussia without an eye to its dissolution into Germany and its eventual demise. An awareness of this outcome overshadows Christopher Clark's masterful history of Prussia from the start. How did Prussia rise from its beginnings as the petty principality of Brandenburg and what legacy did it imprint on the German nation state?

This, as German historians know only too well, is one of the key issues in the notorious Sonderweg debate. Ever since the First World War, Anglo-American historians and their left-wing German counterparts have claimed there was something rotten in the state of Germany, and that something was Prussia - its narrow-minded militarism, its aggressive foreign policy, the persistence in power of its reactionary aristocratic elites.

Clark's response to these questions is twofold. On the one hand, he stresses the threatening geopolitical logic that underpinned the obsession of Prussian rulers with their armies and their readiness to embrace the pre-emptive strike. This was true right from Prussia's origins as an unprotected landlocked territory caught between two fronts during the horrors of the Thirty Years War. It remained true when Frederick the Great seized Silesia in a bid to prevent Saxony doing the same, and throughout his long, bitter struggle to keep the Prussian state afloat when the Austrians, the French and the Russians were determined to cut it down to size. It was, of course, still true in 1914, when the Prussian General Staff implemented the disastrous Schlieffen Plan as a response to the specifically Prussian spectre of a war on two fronts. Moreover, Clark reminds us that long after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Prussia was by far the weakest of the Great Powers, remaining to a surprising degree an object rather than a subject of the international system.

In the dog-eat-dog world of power politics, Prussian foreign policy was driven by an inherently unstable territorial constellation that frequently brought its rulers to the edge of destruction, only to see them re-emerge with their status enhanced. The defeat at Jena and Prussia's resurrection during the Wars of Liberation was one among many dramatic examples of this phenomenon. In short, the rise of Prussia was anything but inevitable.

On the other hand, Clark joins with generations of historians in emphasising the Janus-headed quality of the Prussian state. He does this self-consciously, citing Madame de Stael's famous remark that "the image of Prussia offers a double face, like that of Janus, one of which is military, the other philosophical". For Clark, this simile captures a persistent polarity between tradition and innovation that is central to the dynamic of Prussian history. He sees this polarity in the alternation between military asceticism and lavish cultural display shown by early Hohenzollern monarchs. He sees it in the conflict between the social order of the Junkers and Hegel's modernising state. Perhaps most strikingly, he sees it in Prussia's dramatic transition from conservative anchor of Otto von Bismarck's German Empire to bulwark of German democracy in the Weimar years. The "Red Prussia" of the 1920s was, of course, eventually stamped out by an ultra-conservative junta centred on that pillar of the Prussian military, Fieldmarshal Paul von Hindenberg. But, despite this outcome, one senses that for Clark the "philosophical" face of Prussia may well be the more important of the two.

It is here that the problems of disentangling Prussia from German history become immediately apparent. For, as Clark rightly points out, much that has traditionally been attributed to the nefarious Prussian tradition would be better understood through a more complex German lens. Prussia has, for instance, usually been associated with the trend away from a benign and tolerant German federalism towards a more authori-tarian centralisation.

But Prussia was, in fact, far more decentralised than the southwest German states of Bavaria, Baden and Wurttemberg, which, however, enjoyed a stronger constitutional tradition. Indeed, Clark stresses repeatedly that the Prussian state never really succeeded in merging its component parts into a single, genuinely Prussian identity. For much of its history, it did not even try. The extent of Prussian complicity in Hitler's rise to power is equally patchy. A great many Prussian noblemen threw in their lot enthusiastically with the Nazis, but this hardly distinguished them from other kinds of German noblemen or, indeed, other kinds of German. As for the men involved in the putsch against democratic Prussia in 1932, they were not men from the Prussian heartlands but rather "marginal" Prussians: Franz von Papen was a Westphalian; Friedrich von Gayl was a Rhinelander; even the Silesian Kurt von Schleicher never belonged to the provincial landowning elite. Prussians were, however, disproportionately represented in the 1944 plot against Hitler: two thirds of the plotters came from the Prussian milieu, and many from old and distinguished military families.

Since Hitler himself was, of course, an Austrian, it is hard to argue that there was anything specifically Prussian about what one (Prussian) historian famously termed "the German catastrophe".

This is a defiantly political history, but then Prussia was essentially a political entity. Arguably, indeed, it had little existence outside politics and political culture. There was no such thing as Prussian society, for Prussians were Prussian by citizenship, Germans or Poles by ethnicity, Protestants, Catholics or Jews by conviction, and Brandenburgers, Westphalians, Rhinelanders, Silesians or Berliners by origin.

Apart from an early chapter devoted to the "Powers in the land" during the early modern era, Clark consequently pays relatively little attention to broad societal trends. Social forces naturally have a place in his analysis of the hungry 1840s or the revolution of 1848, but they play an essentially subordinate role in his narrative. Yet religion and high culture remain recurring themes, if only because - in different ways - they shaped the politics of the state. Prussia's Protestant vocation was a central preoccupation for the 19th-century school of Borussian historians. For Clark, what mattered equally was Prussia's hybrid identity as a bi-confessional Protestant state, in which a Calvinist monarch ruled over Lutheran people.

Far from pointing the way towards the aggressive anti-Catholicism of the Kulturkampf, this awkward coexistence bred a precocious religious tolerance and fostered the growth of Pietism. Pietism, in turn, prepared the ground for the Prussian enlightenment, of which Frederick the Great was the most high-profile exponent. The legacy of this philosopher-king would give unique meaning to the relationship between state and civil society in Prussia, encouraging thinkers such as Kant and Hegel to put their faith in the former. Thus Prussia was not merely a state that never managed to become a nation, it also nurtured a political culture that privileged the idea of statehood and state service above everything else.

Inevitably, perhaps, this story gathers pace as it goes along. The canny dynastic marriages, military triumphs and personal peccadilloes of Prussia's early rulers are of limited interest, at least to this reader.

They matter rather for where they lead. Clark is essentially a modern historian, and the book comes alive as we enter the era he knows best.

Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm and Hindenburg are textbook staples, but here we see them in an unfamiliar light. Bismarck is no longer the quintessential Junker but a cultivated outsider with a bourgeois education, who never really fitted in with the East Elbian backwoodsmen among whom he grew up.

Wilhelm is not just a gaffe-prone autocrat, but Germany's first (and last) media monarch, struggling to fit himself into an impossibly multifaceted role. Hindenburg is not the embodiment of the Prussian tradition of state service but a vain, manipulative, treacherous figure, who pressed for a ceasefire in 1918 only to claim that the German Army had been vanquished by a stab in the back.

It is one of the peculiarities of German history that while Germans have traditionally been obsessed with Prussia, Anglo-American historians have shown disproportionate interest in the periphery. Shockingly, there has been no English-language attempt to write the history of Prussia before now. Of those who have recently produced major syntheses of modern Germany, David Blackbourn has written on Wurttemberg, Richard Evans on Hamburg, and James Sheehan's seminal article, "What is German history?" has engendered a whole new orthodoxy, according to which diversity and multiplicity are what set German history apart. This de-centred perspective has served as a useful counternarrative to the national school, but sometimes it can seem as if the tail is wagging the dog.

Clark's book serves as a triumphant corrective. Written with growing verve and passion, it is the compelling story of why - of course - Prussia mattered so much more than any other German state.

Abigail Green is lecturer in modern history, Brasenose College, Oxford University.

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947

Author - Christopher Clark
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 816
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 713 99466 5

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.