Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947
By Christopher Clark (Allen Lane / Penguin Press 777pp £30)
Prussia: the word evokes immediate stereotypical images. The ramrod-straight Junker, his head rectangular, a monocle screwed into his eye, an ornate Pickelhaube topping him off. There is probably also a waxed moustache, and highly polished boots whose heels wait to click. Yet Prussia is also, unlike most states and nations whose histories come to be written, something now purely of the imagination.
Christopher Clark ends this excellent book at 1947 because that is when Prussia ended, abolished by the victorious powers of the Second World War in the hope, it seemed, of obliterating not merely a geographical entity, but a cast of mind and an international cancer. The adjective ‘Prussian’ cries out for the noun ‘militarism’ to follow it, and that was the problem. In 1871 Prussia formed the core of the newly united Germany. The Second Reich had the King of Prussia as its emperor. Prussia, calling the shots in the new nation, was therefore responsible for the Great War and, although the Weimar republic apparently put an end to Prussian control in 1932, the Junkers’ creeds were seen as motivations for the Second World War too. So Prussia had to go.
Clark both reinforces and challenges these and other assumptions about Prussia. He takes his story chronologically though, beginning with the Hohenzollern control of Mark Brandenburg. The Hohenzollerns, by marriage and conquest, acquired a ragbag of territories across western and northern Germany. By the beginning of the eighteenth century Brandenburg had become Prussia, and the Margrave or Elector had become the King, a period of prosperity having dismissed memories of the locust years of the Thirty Years War. And what prosperity it was: when Elector Frederick III went from Berlin to Königsberg for his coronation in January 1701, 30,000 horses pulled 1,800 carriages in which chattels, retinue and retainers were all packed.
Although Prussia was to be a Protestant kingdom, its elevation from duchy to monarchy had been possible only with the support of the Holy Roman Emperor, a Habsburg in Vienna. Austria was to regret its assistance, since it was not least through wars against its sponsor that Prussia gained in power. The Seven Years War, initiated by Frederick the Great in 1756, so nearly ended in defeat but eventually resulted not just in victory but in a territorial gain that put Prussia on course as the dominant German state. And when Bismarck, as Minister President of Prussia, successfully managed to pick a fight with Austria in 1866, the Austrian defeat settled the argument once and for all about which of the two German states ruled the Teutonic roost. After it, Prussia stretched from the borders of France and Belgium to Lithuania.
It only remained for Bismarck then to orchestrate a quarrel with Napoleon III’s France to ensure that, on the 170th anniversary of the coronation of the first Prussian king, King William was proclaimed Kaiser of a united Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles in the aftermath of France’s humiliation.
The Kaiser’s elder brother, as King in 1849, had been offered the chance to lead a united Germany by representatives of other German states, but had turned it down to enhance, paradoxically, his position and credibility after the upheavals of the previous year. Now it was clear that Germany was united in strength rather than weakness; and Prussia and Prussianism would be the model imposed, as far as was possible, on the rest of the nation. As Clark points out in detail, this did not just mean militarism. Prussia had led the German states in having an enlightenment. Frederick the Great had liberalised society greatly during his reign, having a penal code of almost effeminate laxity compared with the barbaric savagery of that imposed at the time in, say, Great Britain. Freedom of speech existed, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, to a remarkable degree for so apparently authoritarian a society. As a concomitant of this there was a deep tradition of widespread and progressive schooling, and the makings of a welfare state. Prussia may have had its social and military rigidities, but it did not become the predominant power in Germany by accident. Its growing authority and success as a state both inspired great monarchs like Frederick the Great and attracted great political leaders such as Bismarck. Militarism was only the means that allowed them to achieve hegemony. Within that state were harboured great intellects such as Hegel, though others such as Marx and Engels had to ply their trade elsewhere.
There could, though, be episodes of bigotry that suggested a fanaticism lying barely below the surface. After the creation of the Second Reich a persecution took place against the Catholic Church that included the widespread imprisonment of priests and the confiscation of assets: by the end of 1878 more than half Prussia’s Catholic bishops were in jail or in exile. The reason for this seems to have been the notion that the Catholic Church was using its position for political ends against the state, and it was rooted in Bismarck’s own personal prejudices. The Jews, who were to suffer terribly under Prussia’s heirs, were kept in their place by Prussian social rigidities and by exclusion from senior state positions. This did not, of course, stop Bismarck using the Jewish financier Gershon Bleichröder to finance schemes of expansionism, both territorial and military. Poles, too, had a hard time – their country had been partitioned by Prussia, though many of them submitted quite willingly to Germanification in order to get on.
Once 1871 is reached, Clark is careful to distinguish Prussian and German history. He deals with the Great War in short order, it having become by that stage a question of German, rather than Prussian, opportunism. Certainly, though, the men who helped lose the war for Germany, and lose the Imperial German and Prussian thrones for the House of Hohenzollern, were both Prussians: Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Oddly, after the Great War, and with attempts at Soviet-style revolution having failed, Prussia then put itself in the forefront of social democracy and progressive republicanism.
However, what really did for Prussia was the identification by Hitler – an Austrian living in Bavaria – and Goebbels of traditional Prussian militarism and efficiency with the nascent Third Reich and Nazism. This was, as with so much else the pair of them did, a cynical move. Their movement had no time for the Junker caste or for the Hohenzollerns: talks with the exiled Kaiser in Doorn in the Netherlands about his possible restoration came to nothing.
Certainly – and Clark is adamant on this point – old Prussia played its part in delivering Hitler to the nation and the world, not least by Hindenburg’s acquiesence in Hitler’s methods once he had won power. Although Prussians were significant in the plot to assassinate the Führer in July 1944, Junker families had also, right from the start, provided a substantial number of high-quality recruits to the Nazi cause.
It was this association of the Nazis with Prussianism that caused the victors to abolish the state in 1947. Given what Prussian enlightenment had done for Germany, that was in part a knee-jerk reaction and historically ignorant. Much of what had been Prussia was parcelled up and annexed to Poland. The once handsome city of Königsberg, one of the jewels of Europe, was flattened by the Russians, renamed Kaliningrad and beautified with Stalinist architecture as only they knew how. As Christopher Clark points out at the end of his exhaustive history, Brandenburg has, since reunification, emerged once more as a locale and an identity. Of Prussia there is nothing, which seems an offence against logic and geography. In the end, it was only a name, and not, in fact, a name that caused the two world wars. One day, perhaps, the taboo will end, and Prussia will be restored – to its social democratic and truncated form, and not as it was in 1914. To remember it just for military aggression is to recall only part of the story, and only part of the story of Europe too.