Theme-Park Prussia

David Blackbourn

  • Prussia: The Perversion of an Idea by Giles MacDonogh
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 456 pp, £20.00, July 1994, ISBN 1 85619 267 9

In 1947, the Allied Control Commission pronounced the death of Prussia, symbol of militarism and knee-jerk obedience, and alleged progenitor of Nazism. It has stayed dead. The GDR was never, as some liked to believe, the continuation of Prussia by other means. Junker estates were broken up, and Prussia was distributed among the Poles and Russians as well as the Germans. Recent events are unlikely to change any of that. Restitution of property almost certainly does not apply to the former estates, and the Oder-Neisse line is fixed. Leningrad may have become St Petersburg again, but Wroclaw will not revert to Breslau. Meanwhile, the Hohenzollerns have much less chance of staging a comeback than several Ruritanian dynasties with an equally grubby record. Lord Vansittart and A.J.P. Taylor can rest easily in their graves.

It has proved more difficult to kill off Prussia in the mind. Post-war historians in the Federal Republic were soon busy rehabilitating the Borussian state. Influential figures like Gerhard Ritter insisted that the main line of Prussian history had nothing to do with the Third Reich: the aristocratic plotters of July 1944 represented the true Prussia, embodying an honourable ‘other Germany’ that stretched back to Frederick the Great and the Great Elector. Nazism was aberration, not culmination, the evil fruit of French Jacobin madness and mass politics, not Prussian order and moderation. The fact that this argument was consistent with Fifties’ theories about totalitarianism was an added bonus. It became possible to blame Hitler on Robespierre or Rousseau’s General Will, absolve the Junkers, yet still be a good Atlanticist.

The Fritz Fischer controversy of the early Sixties marked, in retrospect, the final rearguard action of the Borussophiles. It was a bitter episode: Fischer was denounced by Christian Democratic politicians and denied permission to lecture in the USA. Why? Because he had drawn parallels between German expansionist aims prior to the First and the Second World War, and re-opened the question of continuity in German history. Ritter and others were outraged, but the time had passed when they could use their muscle to prevent publication of works that cast historic Prussia in a negative light (as Ritter blocked German translations of books by the émigré historians Hans Rosenberg and Francis Carsten in the Fifties). In the next two decades a formidable array of scholars showed how much the Prussian monarchy, landed nobility, army and bureaucracy had contributed to the disastrous course of modern German history. Their mordant view of the Old Gang built on the insights of earlier critics like Max Weber, and of historians who had been marginalised in the Twenties and exiled under Hitler. Like many Anglo-Saxon writers of the period – Barrington Moore is a prime example – these scholars concluded that Nazism was the ultimate price paid for a stubborn élite that had selfishly obstructed political modernisation. This was not Vansittartism with footnotes, but a compelling interpretation that made it hard for serious commentators to resurrect the legend of benign Prussian traditions.

The kaleidoscope has been shaken a few times since then. In the wake of debates over the German Sonderweg, or ‘special road’, there has been less emphasis on the Junkers as the (conveniently dead) source of all evil, more recognition of what modern, bustling, technocratic Germany contributed to National Socialism. Eugenicist racial engineering, the bourgeois quest for an apolitical politics, febrile ultra-nationalism – these cannot all be laid at the door of parade-ground Prussia. And if Hitler emerged from a crisis of ‘classic modernity’ (in Detlev Peukert’s phrase), not from the blocking of modernisation by the old élite, then there is reason to ponder our fixation on the Prussian bogey. Since the late Seventies the intellectual sea-change in Germany – the conservative revival of the Kohl years – has also seen a less defensive attitude towards the national past. But the striking point is that these shifts have not led to a renewed idealisation of the Prussian past. A few unreconstructed members of the Borussian school remain, and we have been treated to some warmed-up versions of the old geopolitical arguments about Prussia’s ‘curse’ as the state in the middle of Europe. But for mainstream historians of Prussia the age of innocence is over.

It is at a different level that a sanitised Prussian past lives on. It was fostered in the early years by émigrés from the East. Popular writers like Walter Görlitz also did their bit to sustain pious legends. Then, around the late Seventies, the celebration of Prussia acquired newly fashionable status. In 1979, the best-known liberal historian in the Federal Republic, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, lamented that Prussia had once again become chic among journalists, booksellers and radio producers. Two years later came the great Prussia Exhibition, a central event in the museum and exhibition mania of the Eighties, Germany’s version of the heritage bonanza. Some of the nostalgia was a by-product of the national preoccupation with identity, that keyword of the Eighties, evident in the GDR as well as the Federal Republic. A rose-tinted Prussia appealed also to those who disliked insubordinate youth, the role of interest groups in politics or the sheer messiness of party democracy. Life looked more attractive in theme-park Prussia, where the themes were duty, obedience and discipline.

These, the Prussian virtues and the Prussian vices, are also the themes of Giles MacDonogh’s book. He believes that the good outweighed the bad: the problem of modern German history lay in Prussian weakness, not strength, as the spartan virtues were lost in the grandeur of imperial Germany. The tone is affectionate and often apologist, although one of the best chapters catalogues the ugly Prussian treatment of subject peoples – at least before 1918, after which the Prussians also turn into victims. Despite MacDonogh’s predilection for shopworn language – speed is breakneck and bravery reckless, victories are resounding and defeats crushing – he manages his interwoven thematic chapters with great skill. He has a strong, almost physical sense of place, draws his characters boldly, writes well about buildings (whether Schinkel’s Berlin or Junker barns), and conveys the pathos of a lost past.

The book contains lots of stories. Many are amusing: some are even true. MacDonogh moves in high company, drawing heavily on biography and memoirs (although misspelling the word Erinnerungen every time it occurs). His book has six Eulenburgs, five Moltkes, four Dohnas, three Marwitzes. In five notably purple pages we are introduced to almost a hundred Junker families – the ‘chief families’, the ‘most distinguished Prussian families’, the ‘leading families’, ‘the richest families’, ‘the most famous families’. It is all rather like a Reader’s Digest version of Fontane’s Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg. Some of his characters’ prejudices have also seeped into the text, where newly ennobled figures of the Wilhelmine period are referred to as ‘louche financiers’. Of course, as the author knows (see his chapter on ‘Pink Prussia’), some of the high-born could be pretty louche too, including the Kaiser’s friend Prince Philipp zu Eulenburg, ‘Phili’, ‘Philine’ or ‘she’ to his – or was it her? – friends.

Social exclusiveness as such is not an issue here: John Röhl and Isabel Hull, following Norbert Elias, have shown what we can learn by looking at court society and the aristocratic milieu. The problem arises when the part is confused with the whole, MacDonogh’s symbol of the 19th-century flight from East to West is Junker families selling off their estates; yet the really explosive movement was the popular flight from the Junkers, to America and the Ruhr, by labourers and farm servants who were promptly replaced by cheap imported Poles. The same applies to every area MacDonogh touches. The general staff is there, but the conscripts are absent (presumably with leave). So are the lower-middle-class NCOs who helped make the Prussian Army what it was. The civil service consists only of upper echelons: we get absolutely no sense that by the early 20th century Prussian clerks, food inspectors, hygiene officers and the rest numbered hundreds of thousands and the state railway was the world’s largest employer. Yet the balance sheet of the Prussian state requires that we look beyond a few colourful characters. It is the same story when it comes to education, where most of the space is devoted to cadet schools and Ritterakademien, with a few pages on student drinking bouts. It would be hard to guess from this book that Prussia had over 100,000 schoolteachers by the early 20th century, or that its schools and universities enjoyed a worldwide reputation.

MacDonogh’s principal concern is with the period after 1890, yet he misrepresents what Prussia stood for in these years. Mostly he writes as if nothing had really changed – no population increase, no industrialisation, no mass politics. And where change is registered, it is presented as something alien to the ‘true’ Prussia. This leads to some perverse arguments. To take one example, for all the virulence of later (post-emancipation) anti-semitism it makes little sense to compare the position of the Jews in the late 19th century unfavourably with their status a century earlier. To do so is to misunderstand what Prussian ‘tolerance’ had meant. It is even more perverse to see a weakening in the rule of law from the middle of the 19th century, when the exact opposite was the case.

The reason for this topsy-turvy perspective is clear. Where historians like Ritter saw Wilhelmine Germany as a golden age, MacDonogh’s idealised Prussia is heading downhill after German unification (‘It had received a wound in 1871 that robbed it of its strength’). This central wrong-headedness is more damaging than the book’s many individual errors of fact. In earlier centuries, the Hohenzollerns, like other dynasties, ruled over geographically discontinuous territories that accrued from war, marriage or purchase. While MacDonogh sees that clearly enough, he wants to stop the historical clock at some point after the third Polish partition and present the status quo as the ‘real’ Prussia. In reality. Prussia continued to reinvent itself. It was, in turn, a laboratory for finding ways to rule Poles, the classic practitioner of revolution from above, and a state whose chief ministers proved nimble in reacting to the unrest of 1848 with carrot as well as stick. The hyphenated Prussia-Germany of 1871 cannot be treated as some kind of unfortunate historical mistake. Prussia’s German mission was another exercise in timely adaptation because, through unification, Prussia preserved itself, in a hard, institutional sense.

MacDonogh sees instead a moral struggle between old – what he likes to call ‘timeless’ – Prussian virtue and the new vulgarity. Some element of this is undeniable: Fontane captured it brilliantly. But the book’s evocations of the old Prussia, plump with nostalgia, miss the continuities that link the reign of the last Hohenzollern king, William II, with those of his predecessors. The Kaiser’s court was certainly marked by byzantine intrigue and toadying, but it hardly stood ‘in stark opposition to all traditional Prussian virtues’. Frederick William IV’s court had a notorious camarilla; Frederick William II had his Rosicrucian favourites. It is even harder to believe in the central heroes of this account, the modest, plain-living Junkers bedding down amid halftimbered decay. Most Junkers were certainly more rustic than cosmopolitan, and some were poor – although estate inventories do not suggest families that lived ‘little better than their peasants’. As hundreds of studies have shown, this was above all a hard-headed class of agrarian capitalists. It ran ancillary industries (distilleries, brickworks, sugar refineries), and from the 18th century onwards it did very well out of the state: cheap credit, favourable terms of peasant emancipation, Prussian master and servant law, tariffs, special freight rates, tax breaks, export premiums. A ‘fierce spirit of independence’? These people hardly ever had their trotters out of the public trough.

Prussia became a democratic state after the revolution of November 1918, but the old élite remained powerful. When high tariffs were reintroduced in 1929-30, the Junkers benefited disproportionately; the same was true of ‘Eastern Aid’, the scheme whereby subsidies would be paid to the province of East Prussia, which soon became a scandal. Indirectly, the corruption and self-interest helped the Nazis: Hitler was the revenge of the little man on a Prussian élite that had wooed the peasantry and craftsmen for forty years with anti-semitism, antiliberalism and anti-socialism, but now found itself undone by an even more effective demagogue. Conservative Prussia also bore direct responsibility for Nazi success, in the mechanics of the backstairs intrigue that jobbed Hitler into power, and in a more deep-seated way. For MacDonogh, President Hindenburg kept the Weimar Republic going and the Reichswehr was a ‘stabilising’ force. It would be more accurate to say that they played a destabilising role, along with landowners and elements in the civil service. That was not the whole story of the Nazi seizure of power, but it was an important part. MacDonogh’s Prussia was a victim rather as Tonya Harding was a victim: not.

This book portrays members of the Prussian élite who went over to the Nazis, including younger Hohenzollerns. A few rotten apples, bien entendu: the good remained true, and the true remained good; their hour came in July 1944. The plotters acted with moral conviction and courage: the fact that they wanted a negotiated settlement to preserve German gains does not alter that. But it was the Left and individual Catholics who carried the Resistance through the Third Reich while Nazi rule rested on an element of consent from business, civil service and army. That held true even under the radicalising impact of war. The account here of an army that resisted the Commissar Order (to murder political commissars captured on the Eastern Front) and was not directly implicated in the work of murder squads of the Einsatzgruppen is at odds with the findings of contemporary historians. It was 1945, not 1933, that killed Prussia. That death was painful. The author describes murder, rape, bayoneted babies, looted art work, razed dwellings and pitiful flight: more Prussian victims. We are left to wonder what might have provoked all this Russian and Polish barbarism.

Giles MacDonogh is a noted writer on food and drink. This book has lashings of both. The Prusai were drunks, and so were the Swedes. Frederick William I drank beer and avoided fancy food. The Kaiser preferred fruit juice, disliked whisky, but enjoyed making strawberry punch; guests at his receptions were served wine and champagne, although Kiel Week had its Bierabend and Christmas at Potsdam meant carp cooked in beer and plum pudding in schnaps. Bumpers of wine were served on the king’s birthday at Bensberg cadet academy; but the decision to stop distributing left-over boar and pheasant to the boys after the annual Ritterakademie ball led to a raid on the stores by a young Elard von Oldenburg-Januschau. General Schleicher dined well at Horcher’s restaurant; Frau Ebert was partial to marzipan tart. General Seeckt drank beer, Ernst Röhm drank wine, Herbert Bismarck drank practically anything (like father, like son). A jolly good time is clearly being had by (almost) all. Unfortunately, when it comes to the tough questions about Prussian history MacDonogh is usually out to lunch.