Black Legends

David Blackbourn

  • Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947 by Christopher Clark
    Allen Lane, 777 pp, £30.00, August 2006, ISBN 0 7139 9466 5

Too much history can be bad for you. ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’ – that was Marx’s famous comment on France in 1848. When Nietzsche elaborated on the same idea in one of his ‘untimely meditations’, he had Germany in mind, the Prussia-writ-large created under the auspices of Bismarck. We have become familiar with the idea that the dead weight of Prussian history deformed the development of modern Germany. Junker-ridden, archaic and feudal, the epitome of the centralised, militarist state, Prussia was the albatross that hung round the neck of unified Germany. Clement Attlee used a stronger term in 1943, arguing that history suggested the need to ‘eradicate the Prussian virus’.

Law 46 of the Allied Control Council formally abolished the Prussian state in February 1947, but that has not stopped debate about the Prussian legacy. Postwar West German historians laboured to deny any connection between historic Prussia and the Third Reich; the generation of ‘critical historians’ that followed saw the malign continuities of Prussia-Germany as axiomatic. During the 1980s these arguments were fought on the familiar terrain of exhibitions, museums and heritage, with the added twist that the East German state now began to exploit a selective version of the Prussian past for its own purposes. The acrimony did not go away after the Berlin Wall fell. There was criticism when the remains of Frederick the Great were reinterred at Sans Souci in August 1991; a political spat in 2002 prompted one of Germany’s leading historians to suggest that ‘Prussia poisons us.’

Given the weight attached by critics to the deforming power of Prussian tradition during the 19th and into the 20th century, it takes us aback to encounter a writer declaring unhappily in 1848 that ‘the Prussia of today has no history.’ It is all the more surprising when that writer is the young Theodor Fontane, whose later travel writings and novels would combine sharp criticisms of the Prussian present with a melancholy, elegiac fondness for the Prussian past. Pinning down what Fontane meant takes us to the heart of Christopher Clark’s lively and thoughtful book. His clear-eyed account hinges on the idea that the essence of the Prussian tradition was the absence of tradition.

It is not hard to see how that quality might have impressed a 19th-century observer like Fontane. Half the citizens of the Prussian state after 1815 had been something else just twenty years earlier. They became Prussian, at least in name, because of the Polish partitions at the end of the 18th century and the post-Napoleonic peace settlement, which created a Prussia that stretched not quite continuously across Europe between the borders of France and Russia. The result was a far-flung, fragmented state. Its provinces had different administrative traditions and legal codes. Their inhabitants owed a profusion of prior loyalties, and there were not only substantial numbers of Polish speakers in the east but pockets where French, Dutch, Lithuanian or Russian was the native tongue. Like other German states after 1815, only more so, Prussia faced a daunting task of state-building. Undertaken against a background of social, political and religious conflicts that efforts at state-building only exacerbated, the project remained incomplete. In the words of a Scottish visitor in the 1840s, Prussia was a ‘kingdom of shreds and patches’.

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