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The double Prussia

Volker Ullrich is full of praise for Christopher Clark's masterpiece on the Hohenzollern state of Prussia

Sixty years ago, on February 25, 1947, the Allied Control Council in Berlin decreed: "The state of Prussia, which from its earliest days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany, has de facto ceased to exist." Behind this decision stood the conviction that the origins of National Socialism were located in the Prussian tradition and the extinction of one should accompany that of the other.

"The Iron Kingdom" by Christopher Clark, which came out in Germany this year (and in England in 2006), shows how drastically this image has altered. There is no hint here of blanket Prussia-bashing; instead the book is permeated by an almost strained attempt to do justice to the Hohenzollern state. Naturally – as the British historian of Australian origin emphasizes in his introduction – one must ask how exactly Prussia was implicated in the catastrophes of German 20th century history. Yet the focus should not be restricted to 1933 or 1871. "The truth is that Prussia was a European state long before it became a German one. Germany was not Prussia's fulfilment, but its undoing."

How does one explain that Brandenburg, the land surrounding Berlin with its sandy earth and meagre resources went on to become the core of a powerful state? Christopher Clark ascribes this to the prudence of the Electors (kings after 1701) from the House of Hohenzollern, whose skilful pendular diplomacy and adept marriage politics extended their sphere of influence step for step, gradually taking control of the remote areas in the West, on the Rhine and into the East - the Duchy of Prussia. The author does not present the rise of Brandenburg-Prussia to European superpower as a straight-line success story, but as a contradictory process, in the course of which "moments of precocious strength alternate with moments of perilous weakness."

The state stood more than once on the brink of political extinction – during the Thirty Years War, when marauding troops poured into and ransacked the state's unprotected inner territory. During the Seven Years War, when Frederick II ("the Great") could barely defy the seemingly all-powerful coalition and was only able to hold onto a Silesia he had robbed from Austria because Russia pulled out of the enemy front at the last moment – the famous "miracle of the House of Brandenburg". And finally in 1806, when Napoleon delivered the Prussians a devastating defeat at Jena and Auerstedt, reducing the vanquished state in the ensuing Treaty of Tilsit to its core territories east of the Elbe. From all of these catastrophes, says Clark, Prussia inherited "an abiding sense of vulnerability which left a disctinctive imprint on Prussia's political culture."

It is to this that the author attributes one of Prussia's defining characteristics – the creation of an über-dimensional army. In 1640, at the start of the rule of the "Great Electors", Brandenburg had an army of 3,000; by 1786 at the death of Frederick the Great, that number had risen to 195,000. In terms of population and land area, Prussia ranked 13th or rather 10th in Europe, but it had the third largest army. It was not Mirabeau (as so often maintained) but Georg Heinrich Berenhort, an adjutant to Frederick, who remarked at the time that Prussia was not a state with an army but an army with a state "in which it was merely quartered, so to speak."

Social historians have tended to leap mostly unfounded to the conclusion that a military state implies the existence of a military society. Here Clark is more restrained in his judgement. He demonstrates that the social reality in the flat land in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was multifaceted, at least that it could never be encapsulated by the term "Untertanengesellschaft" or society of subjects, and that even in garrison towns the influence of the military was limited.

Indeed this is this author's speciality: to question accepted readings and put paid to many a legend. For example, in contradicting a perception that dates back to the Prussian constitutional historian Otto Hintze, that under the government of the "Soldier King" Frederick Wilhelm I, absolutism came to fruition, in other words that Prussia was welded into a united state with a strong central regime. "Well into the nineteenth century there were many areas of the Prussian lands where the presence of the state was scarcely perceptible."

He has illuminated the image of the Prussian "Junkers", the noble landowners in the districts east of the river Elbe, the serf-suppressing tyrannical local electors who, in literature critical of Prussia, are mostly pictured getting up to no good. Not that this image is entirely false, but it is also not entirely true, and Clark adds a number of corrective angles, without running the risk of being an apologist.

Only very occasionally does one get the impression that the author is stretching the limits of understanding in his bid for justice. As with his comment on Frederick II's attack on Silesia in 1740, that "in the context of contemporary power politics ... [this act] was anything but unusual." When in fact, it was extremely risky; the Prussian king was playing va banque and in the process, establishing a tradition in Prussian-German history, one leaden with catastrophe.

On the whole, though, pro and contra, shadowy and light sides are weighed up carefully. Prussia emerges as a state that was set up for expansion, in which the military played a unique role and "secondary virtues" such as discipline and obedience were held in high regard. At the same time it was also a haven at least for confessional tolerance, at times even as a place of enlightenment with a relatively open culture of discussion and a progressive educational system, which was a role model for other countries. Clark continually confronts us with these two faces of Prussia which join to form a fascinating and provocative ensemble.

There is one instance where Christopher Clark seems to be taken in by a popular cliche. "Merged into Germany" is the title of chapter 16, which covers the developments that followed the founding of the Lesser German nation-state in 1871. But as the author himself makes very clear, it is impossible to talk of a merger into Germany. And not simply because Prussia, as the largest constituent state by far, practised a hegemony guaranteed by the constitution, but also because it was able to exercise a sustained, or rather deforming influence on the political culture of the empire. The extra-constitutional position of the army remained untouched – "Prussia's calamitous legacy for the new Germany," Clark writes. And thanks to the screamingly unjust three-class voting system, the Prussian Junkers and their conservative allies were able to retain their hold on power.

The ignominious abdication of the last Hohenzollern ruler Wilhelm II in November 1918 did not bring an end to the history of Prussia. Quite the opposite: in the Weimar Republic Prussia very clearly showed its face again, with all its ambivalence. On the one side, under the government of the Social Democrat Otto Braun, Prussia developed into a "bastion of democracy"; on the other, the old Prussian power elite who had been robbed of their political privileges, doggedly maintained a hostile distance to the Republic, and it was they, with the coup d'etat against Prussia on July 1932, who also paved the way for Hitler's ascent to power. "To a certain extent" the author concludes, "one could also say that on July 20, 1932, the old Prussia destroyed the new."

The two faces of Prussia – we meet them again even after 1933. Several members of the Prussian aristocracy joined the Nazi party and as officers and diplomats, supported Hitler's criminal politics. On the other hand, there were plenty of resoundingly Prussian names in the resistance – Helmuth James von Moltke and Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, the leaders of the Kreisau Circle.

What is so captivating about Christopher Clark's book is not merely its confident mastery of an overwhelming mass of sources and literature, but also the variety of its methods and perspectives. The writer's expertise is in politics and military history. He dedicates much attention to the play of huge powers and battlefield activities. But the history of ideas is also duly represented. Particularly impressive are the chapter on Pietism in Brandenburg-Prussia, on the Jewish Enlightenment in Berlin at the tail end of the eighteenth century and the state philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, which had a heady influence on an entire generation of educated Prussians in the years after 1815. On the other hand, the history of economics is definitely short-changed. Clark spends page after page listing the reasons for the Prussian victory over Austria at Königgrätz in 1866; the fundamental process of industrialisation before and after 1848 is dispatched with in only a few lines.

There are very readable chapters on what today one would call "politics of history" and the "culture of remembrance." Because in the course of its expansion, Brandenburg-Prussia brought together peoples of very diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, it needed as a state to invent a kind of shared history and identity. The important factor in this process, as Clark shows, was the wave of Prussian patriotism, how it sparked the Seven Years War and how it found its greatest expression in the cult surrounding Frederick the Great. Almost as important was the memory of the "wars of liberation" against Napoleon, which soon after 1815 were recast as the myth of Prussia's special "national" mission. This was something that the Nazis, who in their propaganda liked to present themselves as the consummation of the Prussian tradition, were keen to latch on to.

A final word of praise should also go to the form of the book. Christopher Clark writes salutary, clear prose, spiced with punchlines and anecdotes. Beautifully narrated sections – such as the description of the conflict between the "Soldier King" and his unruly son, or the start of the revolution on March 18th 1848 in Berlin, probably the most memorable day in Prussian history – are interspersed with acutely analytical passages. From the heights of cabinet politics the focus always returns to lower levels of society – whether it's the suffering of the soldiers and the civilian population in the Seven Years War or the uprising of the Silesian weavers of 1844. The author is highly attentive to the biographies of the major players from the "Great Electors" to Otto von Bismarck and Wilhelm II. All of them gems of the art of historical portraiture.

The book has been enthusiastically received in the Anglo-Saxon press. And deservedly so. It is a remarkable achievement with which the 46 year-young Cambridge scholar has written himself into the premiere league of British historians.


This article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on 2 February, 2007.

Christopher Clark is a Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at St. Catherine's College, Cambridge. "The Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947" is published in English by Harvard University Press.

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