Remember Prussia?

Remember Prussia?

Mini Teaser: The improbable ascent, sudden collapse and subsequent re-imagination of Prussia.

by Author(s): William Anthony Hay

Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2006), 800 pp., $35.00.

RUDYARD KIPLING's 1897 poem Recessional warned of the transience of greatness with the lines "all our pomp of yesterday/Is one with Nineveh and Tyre." While imperial decline marks a recurring cycle, rarely have nations truly landed in history's graveyard. Many nations-partitioned like Poland or dominated by foreign empires for centuries like Serbia-eventually regained their independence. Prussia, however, met the fate of which Kipling warned. Its official dissolution in 1947 ratified the consequences of defeat and ethnic cleansing that left no chance for revival. Prussia's legacy brings to mind the scene of Percy Shelley's Ozymandias where a traveler encounters ruins that mock the pretensions of a long-forgotten imperious ruler who had warned rivals: "Look on my works, ye mighty and despair."

The left-leaning historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler rejected a Social Democratic minister's 2002 proposal to revive the name in an article provocatively entitled "Prussia Poisons Us." The article, published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, rehearsed long-standing arguments that Prussian culture caused Germany's failure to embrace liberal democracy and representative government. Prussia bears the blame for Germany's twentieth-century transition from the land of Dichter und Denker (poets and philosophers) into the domain of Richter und Henker (judges and hangmen) during the Nazi era. Foreigners have associated Prussia with aggression since 1914, and Prussia, for today's anglophone readers, equals militarism-if not fascism itself.

Such views contrast sharply with the positive way in which English-speaking societies saw Prussia before the late 19th century. They associated militarism, expansionist ambitions and political extremism with France, not Prussia. Protestant Germany, especially Prussia, instead held a reputation for technology, music and education. Americans took the model for the modern research university from Germany, and associated Prussia with Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Foreigners also noted Pietism's influence on a society viewed as orderly and progressive. Observers saw its victories over Austria and France as largely positive developments rather than portents of catastrophe.

Christopher Clark's Iron Kingdom presents a thoroughly researched and well-written account of Prussia's rise and fall. As an Australian-born historian at Cambridge University, Clark stands outside the quarrels among German academics that make their country's history an arena for struggling over cultural politics. Consciously avoiding the tendency to compress Prussian history into a teleology of German national guilt, he focuses instead on the fact that Prussia became a great power before it dominated Germany. Indeed, Clark argues persuasively that far from being Prussia's destiny, Germany became its undoing. Prussia's fate offers a cautionary tale with more than historical interest. It engages timely questions about the nature of state-building and the dangers of using foreign policy to bind a fragile domestic consensus.

PRUSSIA ROSE from inauspicious beginnings outside the lands from which it took the name. Frederick Hohenzollern, the ambitious burgrave of Nuremberg, bought Brandenburg in 1417 for 400,000 gold guilders. It conferred the rank of elector in the Holy Roman Empire, with a combination of prestige and political leverage that provided a considerable asset. The territory itself offered much less. A sparsely populated region with poor soil and little manufacturing, Brandenburg lay outside the main trading routes. Judicious political maneuvering and marital alliances gained Pomerania on the Baltic coast and extended Hohenzollern rule to the wealthy enclaves of Jülich and Kleve in northwestern Germany and Ducal Prussia in Poland. By 1600, the Electors of Brandenburg stood on the brink of exhilarating, but troubling possibilities. They ruled a patchwork domain with local elites jealous of their authority and lacked the resources to defend it. Neither Prussia nor the western territories adjoined Brandenburg. Far from drawing rulers and subjects together in a common struggle, war threatened division as subjects looked either to their own interests or stronger loyalties beyond the realm. Consequently, the Hohenzollerns faced the challenge of forging their inheritance into a state at a particularly difficult time.

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) tore Germany apart. Brandenburg stood at the intersection of conflict between rival powers and could not avoid involvement. Limited resources and the need to choose the least bad option made Brandenburg a stomping ground for foreign troops, unable to conduct its affairs according to its own interests. Devastation from the war had a catastrophic impact that lingered in collective memory, and Clark emphasizes the transition it wrought. The Thirty Years War should be seen as part of a wider pattern in early modern Europe, where religious upheaval joined with conflicts between rulers and nobles over where sovereignty lay. This sustained competition for power drove political and military innovation. States required a strong army not just to defend themselves, but also to be a desirable ally and thus to claim a secure position in the international system. Rulers and states that adapted survived or even thrived, while others fell victim to stronger rivals. Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes legitimized the notion of a strong state in their writings, promoting centralized authority as a means to forestall anarchy. Similar ideas circulated widely in Europe, but such arguments particularly resonated in Brandenburg, where experience underlined the dangers of vulnerability.

Strategic marriages, a treaty with Poland and governmental reforms lessened Prussia's susceptibility to foreign attack. The Hohenzollerns successfully gained full sovereignty over their domains, including Prussia itself-held by Poland until 1657-and established Brandenburg-Prussia as a regional power. Modernizing the army and securing a steady flow of manpower was only one step. Prussia's rulers broke the army's old feudal connection with nobles and localities to make it an extension of their own power. Frederick William, who reigned from 1640 to 1688, created institutions to secure funding and supplies, taking control of taxation from provincial estates. War facilitated the expansion of absolutism that broke the hold of local elites. Besides allowing rulers to draw more effectively on resources, it also imposed uniformity. In the century after 1640, office-holders, rather than aristocratic landholders, provided the social foundation of Prussia's elite. Successive rulers pursued state-building as cumulative projects, each accepting as his own the unfulfilled objectives of his predecessors.

Prussia's military system-which provided a large, well-trained force without disrupting the civilian economy-drew particular notice. Regiments were assigned specific districts within which recruits could be drawn among unmarried men of eligible age when voluntary enlistment proved insufficient. Generous furloughs released men to their communities after basic training, and reserve status allowed them to enjoy civilian employment during peacetime. Exemptions from service minimized both the economic impact and popular resistance. Prussia also conscripted nobles' sons for the officer corps, and army service helped transform the nobility into a loyal service caste. Cadet schools inculcated a common ethos, and the army itself became a central force behind elite homogenization during the 18th century. Reforms generally allowed Prussia to field a larger army than its populations or resources would allow, prompting the famous quip that, while most countries have an army, the Prussian army had a country.

The different ways in which other kingdoms adapted to 17th-century challenges highlight Prussia's distinctiveness. Sweden, another resource-poor country, became a formidable military power without abandoning constitutional government. Its kings appealed to a free peasantry with political rights through a military populism that secured consensus. Swedes used resourcefulness-rather than their own resources-to exploit occupied territories, relying on foreign subsidies to field large armies. Shifting the burden from its own subjects helped the crown maintain support at home, but Sweden could not sustain the effort over the long term and eventually declined in power.

Britain's parliamentary monarchy raised money rather than troops. Parliament integrated groups within the state, while the national debt gave investors a stake in the regime's future. A bureaucracy emerged to raise taxes and support the navy, but otherwise government remained small and controlled by local elites. Patronage greased the wheels of a smoothly working system. The fiscal military state thus supported Britain's rise to world power and integration as a composite monarchy within a consensual and constitutional order.

Other facets of Prussian state-building had a long-term impact. The need to draw skilled inhabitants and the variety of confessions under Hohenzollern rule made toleration an early imperative. Prussia welcomed refugees from persecution, especially French Huguenots. Economic calculations predominated, and recruiting immigrants fit within a wider project of state-promoted development, but Clark also notes "a striking absence of prejudice" that set a distinctive pluralist tone in which ethics counted more than doctrine. Prussia became a natural home for Pietism and later the German Enlightenment. Pietism began in the 1670s as a Lutheran effort at moral reform and closer attention to scripture, anticipating Methodism's rise in England. Elector Frederick III gave Pietism official sponsorship and a base at the University of Halle. The movement promoted a moral rigor and a sacralized concept of vocation emphasizing duty that profoundly shaped Prussian attitudes, especially among army officers. Pietism had an influence that complimented the rationalism of such Enlightenment figures as Christian Wolff and Immanuel Kant. Although Clark writes that as a constructed state Prussia lacked authentic tradition-indeed, the absence of tradition became a tradition of sorts-the combination of tolerance, Pietism and the Enlightenment marked an outlook closely associated with Prussia until the 1870s.

Essay Types: Book Review