Nations rise and fall: some which were once great no longer are – Sweden, say, or Holland – while Russia, which wasn’t, now is. Sometimes countries – the United States or Israel – arise from nothing. But the subject of Mr Haffner’s book is odder. It first appeared from nowhere and then disappeared quite without trace: to him, a sad disappearance.
He is a distinguished journalist, who was born in Berlin but has spent much of his time in England and written for the British press. Now he writes a threnody for his native country, and an apologia. He thinks, incontrovertibly, that Prussia had an interesting history which is well worth treating in a short epigrammatic essay. More debatably, he thinks that Prussia has had a bad name which it did not really deserve. Though he is careful to stress what was wrong with Prussia, he emphasises, too, what was right, especially in the heyday of Frederick the Great’s enlightened despotism and after: efficient administration, material progress, religious toleration. Prussia was on the whole a Good Thing.
The trouble with the argument, even when it is as plausibly presented as here, is: good for whom? It was good for the peoples of Brandenburg and East Prussia, the centres of the old kingdom, especially the land-owning, military and administrative classes; good for the many people – French, Rhinelanders, Salzburgers – who voluntarily went to live in Prussia in the 18th century; maybe not so good for the peoples who were conquered by Prussia. The administration was indeed efficient by the standards of the age, but efficient to what end? Most states are instruments for conducting foreign policy and ultimately for waging war. This was peculiarly true of Prussia.
The story of the country is one of conquest from the start. It came into being in its modern form in the 16th century with the marriage of two conquered lands, Brandenburg and Prussia. The Brandenburg March, as its name suggests, was itself a border territory. The names of its provinces – Altmark, Mittelmark and Neumark – show the eastward drive as Germans pushed back Slavs across what is now East Germany and western Poland. How Prussia was born is the subject of Mr Christiansen’s fascinating and elegant book. In 1147, 50 years after the First Crusade to Jerusalem, Bernard of Clairvaux persuaded the Pope to proclaim a crusade against the pagans of north-eastern Europe, a crusade more to the taste of north German knights (as one against the Spanish Muslims was to Castilian knights) than a journey to Palestine.
The Prussians, as they had been named by the ninth-century ‘Bavarian geographer’, were Balts living between the Vistula and the Memel. They had resisted earlier Polish attempts at conquest and conversion. In the 13th century they were at last conquered, partly destroyed, and converted, by the knights of the Teutonic Order; previous or concurrent crusades had wrested Mecklenburg, Pomerania, Estonia and Latvia from the hands of their Slavonic and Baltic inhabitants. Prussia became the knights’ central province, then a Polish feoff and, in 1525, a Duchy through the treachery of the last Grand Master: Albert of Brandenburg-Ansbach, a Hohenzollern, cousin or the family that had been Margraves of Brandenburg for a century, secularised the Order and made himself Duke. A generation later, Margravate and Duchy were united under one ruler.
By the 17th century and the time of Frederick William, the ‘Great Elector’, Brandenburg-Prussia was a power to reckon with, though not in the front rank. In 1701 the Elector Frederick III became ‘King in Prussia’ (the preposition a nod to Polish sensibilities). Mr Haffner says: ‘Prussia’s long gestation had run its course. It had emerged and its history was about to begin.’ The second ‘Great’, Frederick II, ruled from 1740 to 1786, and gave Prussia the character which marked it for the next century and a quarter. Mr Haffner tries hard to make no excuses for him, as he has made no excuses for the conquest and extermination which had characterised the ‘pre-history’ of Prussia. The fact is that 15 of the first 23 years of Frederick’s reign were spent in war, and that ‘right was almost invariably on the side of his enemies.’
Intelligent observers like Voltaire admired, not to say fawned on, Frederick and his regime. But the purpose of material prosperity and efficient administration was to extract more money for more fighting. It is true that the 18th century was in some respects a civilised age. Its wars were fought for limited ends by small, professional armies and, apart from taxation, the citizens of the belligerent countries could be unaware that war was in progress: a contrast to the devastations caused by the great ideological wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, and by those which followed the French Revolution. But that was not especially Frederick’s doing. Even the religious toleration which so impressed visitors can be explained cynically. The different religions gathered in by Prussian conquest could not be assimilated: Lutherans, Calvinists in Cleves (and Brandenburg), Catholic Poles in Silesia and ‘West Prussia’. The answer was religious liberty, and the state itself as religion: ‘a certain vacuum which was filled by something that one might term state ethics’.
Mr Haffner naturally mentions William von Humboldt as a great Prussian statesman, an enlightened Minister, the founder of the University of Berlin. He quotes Humboldt’s words that Prussia ‘must be greater than its natural weight entails. Something, therefore, must be added to that natural weight ... In the days of Frederick II, it was his genius.’ (These words say something most important about Prussia under the Great Elector, or Frederick II, or Bismarck: it was always striving beyond its natural power, with a consequent tendency to exultation, hysteria or collapse.) But Mr Haffner does not mention the most interesting thing about Humboldt, an epitome of the Prussian paradox, indeed of the German paradox. As a young man he had written The Limits of State Action, a brilliant exposition of anti-statist liberalism in the tradition of Locke and Hume: the state was an unfortunate necessity, whose powers should be restricted to the minimum. And then he became a servant of the state, denying with every action the beliefs he had once preached. If Humboldt had not changed his mind, and had exercised his influence against the powers of the state, Prussian and German history might have run a different course.
As he brings his apologia into the 19th and 20th centuries, Mr Haffner does not really see this. He rightly says that the final catastrophe of German history cannot be blamed on Prussia. Even after Bismarck had united the Reich, his nationalism (if indeed it can be called that) was of a limited and defensive kind. He never wished to go to war with Russia, rather to maintain the old Junker alliance with her to keep the Poles in their place, Pan-German nationalism, with its expansionist and racialist implications, was never a Prussian taste. The leaders and, if they may be dignified with the term, ideologists of National Socialism were Austrians, Bavarians, Rhinelanders, occasionally Saxons, but not Prussians. Prussia had in the end a more distinguished record of resistance to Hitler than the Catholic South.
And yet the Prussians cannot be wholly exculpated. They still, under the Third Reich, provided the backbone of the army. They succumbed to the temptation of further glory in conquest: a Prussian Protestant Faust to an Austrian Catholic Mephistopheles, if one wants to be fanciful. Others gave the orders. Prussia obeyed them. Nor does this sort awkwardly with the previous pattern of Prussian history. There may be a contradiction if history is seen as simple linear progress, or if politics are judged purely on a spectrum of Left and Right. But if the criterion is the power of the state, a different picture emerges – in the case of Prussia not a pretty picture, even when painted by its admirers. For Prussia, even when enlightened, was never liberal. It was the best-organised, most disciplined country in Europe. When that is grasped, even Prussia’s ‘positive’ achievements can be seen in perspective. It was characteristic that Prussia should pioneer state schools and compulsory primary education, and that the welfare state should be the invention of the most brilliant and creative of Prussian statesmen, Bismarck.
Both these books are well worth reading. Mr Haffner’s is more or less misprint-free, which is more than can be said for Mr Christiansen’s. The two publishers surpass themselves with their maps. The first in The Northern Crusades marks the Kattegat as the Sound. The maps in The Rise and Fall of Prussia are grotesquely bad, using two tints, almost indistinguishable to a reviewer with perfect eyesight, to differentiate lands held at the beginning of the period and lands acquired during it. Get a good historical atlas.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.