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’.

One great merit of Clark’s book is to show that attempts to forge a Prussian state, and the difficulties encountered, were not the result of a collision between archaic tradition and modernity, but the continuation of a very old story. From its modest beginnings in the sandy North German plain, Brandenburg-Prussia was protean. One pointer to this unsettled, provisional character is that most of its core territories were called ‘marches’ – the March Brandenburg, the New March and so on. The Hohenzollerns expanded their patchwork patrimony by using all the tools available to early modern rulers: dynastic marriages, the exchange of territory, diplomatic alliances and war – especially war. Beginning in 1640, five consecutive Hohenzollerns left behind a state larger than the one they inherited. Prussia became a new power in Europe, even if it remained the least of the great powers through the middle of the 19th century, mocked by a Times leader in 1860 for ‘always leaning on somebody, always getting somebody to help her, never willing to help herself’.

Growth was not gradual but discontinuous, even convulsive. On three occasions the very existence of the state was threatened. The first came during the Thirty Years War, when it was unable to resist incursions by Swedish, French and Imperial forces, the second during the dark days of the Seven Years War, the third after catastrophic defeat by France at Jena reduced Prussia to a rump state. These experiences imparted a sharp sense of vulnerability to the historical memory of Hohenzollern rulers. They wielded a variety of weapons in trying to consolidate this shape-shifting state. One was the central bureaucracy, often staffed by non-Prussians, constructed in the century before 1740. Frederick the Great interrupted this process: a tireless micro-manager, he used hand-picked troubleshooters to circumvent the slow workings of the machine. But the aim was still centralisation, and the new Prussian territories acquired in the late 18th century provided a laboratory for administrative innovation. That was especially true of former Polish territories, although it was in the obscure Hohenzollern lands in Franconia that the reformer Karl von Hardenberg cut his teeth. The celebrated reform era that followed the humiliation of 1806 was therefore part of a longer history of ‘the world the bureaucrats made’. Clark is excellent on the grit and friction that attended their efforts. Even the well-tempered absolutist state of the 18th century was dependent on vergers, innkeepers and passing schoolboys to distribute its paperwork. Central authority always tended to fray at the edges. The corporate and local power of the nobility was not displaced; instead, a form of cohabitation developed. And when Berlin pressed harder against provincial autonomy in the 19th century, this provoked a reaction.

Local administration was one bulwark of Junker landowners. The other was the officer corps of an army that remains, for most people, the defining image of Prussia. As an adjutant to Frederick the Great memorably put it, ‘the Prussian monarchy is not a country which has an army, but an army which has a country, in which – as it were – it is just stationed.’ The size of the army was daunting, 195,000 at the time of Frederick’s death in 1786, the third largest in Europe in a state with the 13th largest population. This was certainly a militarised state, Clark argues, but not – yet – a militarised society, for only 81,000 of those soldiers were Prussians and peacetime training was perfunctory. In the decades before the 1848 revolution the army remained widely unpopular. It was mass conscription and indoctrination in modern barracks that led to the militarisation of society, something that happened after German unification was brought about by successful wars against Denmark, Austria and France in the years 1864-71.

A nimbus of myth soon surrounded those years. Celebrating the deeds of Bismarck and Moltke was only the latest episode in a long history of myth-mongering. From the victory over Sweden at Fehrbellin in 1675 (which turned Frederick William into the ‘Great’ Elector) to the so-called War of Liberation in 1813, heroic legends became an important dynastic resource. Military successes were wrapped up with the stylised Prussian virtues of austerity, duty and self-sacrifice to make a powerful Hohenzollern mystique. A cult of Frederick the Great flowered as early as the 1750s, in sermons, poems, ballads and silk sashes that bore the message ‘long live the king.’ Frederick and his successors were adept at playing up to the image. Frederick William IV, who acceded to the throne in 1840, was not the deluded romantic loon of so many accounts, but a monarch with a sharp appreciation of political symbols and how to manipulate them. Even the gruff and soldierly William I, the first Prussian king to become German emperor, enjoyed playing the role of the simple, unaffected ruler.

Clark’s sensitivity to the performative, representational aspects of public life – from coronation ceremonies and architectural display to the oppositional popular politics of carnival celebrations – is one of his strong suits. It is matched by the imaginative insight he brings to the discussion of religion. He gives an excellent account of the Pietist educational and philanthropic networks that proved so important to the ruling dynasty, then (in one of the many subtle, reflective passages that punctuate the book) writes about the legacy of Pietism – for the Prussian Enlightenment, the ‘inwardness’ of Romanticism and the asceticism of many noble landowners. The Protestant Great Awakening in the first half of the 19th century gets the attention it deserves, but rarely receives. Few readers will forget the millenarian sect whose upper-class members scandalised Königsberg in the 1830s with their libidinal ‘excesses’, a reminder that religion was never simply a force for order and social conformity. It is good to have this detailed demonstration of just how important religious faith and denominational differences were in what used to be called the era of secularisation.

In this, as in his concern for the politics of representation, Clark works prominent themes of recent historiography into an accessible popular account. A more intriguing aspect of the book is that it relies heavily for its narrative drive on approaches normally associated with a more traditional history, which Clark uses for his own purposes. So, for example, the rich anecdotal material on the Hohenzollerns is made to yield valuable insights into court society, inter-generational conflicts and dynasticism as a system. (One especially interesting argument suggests that the key role played by powerful women in the early years gave way to a marked ‘masculinisation’.) The book also pays sustained attention to the dilemmas created by Prussia’s geographical position in Europe, without lapsing into geopolitical over-simplification. As if brandishing chaps and maps were not provocation enough, Clark allocates very generous space to military history. If you want to know about Wrangel’s failure to occupy a low sandhill that overlooked his right flank at Fehrbellin, or why the Prussian needle-gun carried the day in 1866, look no further. But you will also find hard data on the demographic costs of war (Clark suggests that as many as 10 per cent of Prussian civilians lost their lives in the Seven Years War), and good accounts of the battlefield experience.

The tone of the book is cool and detached. Borussian myth-making is cut down to size, but the counterblasts of Prussophobe historians (like the ‘black legend of Junker tyranny’ in the countryside) are also challenged. Above all, Clark disputes the teleological perspective that begins with the Nazi seizure of power and tracks back to find its origins in the Prussian past. After a sympathetic account of the Silesian weavers’ rising in 1844, he notes that the 1840s were even hungrier in the British Isles, then suggests that if the Irish potato famine had happened to Silesian Poles we should be seeing antecedents of Nazi wartime rule in Eastern Europe. The anti-teleological message is built into the architecture of the book, which bucks the normal trend with a narrative that becomes thinner, not thicker, as it approaches the 20th century. Whereas the years 1789-1815 get three moderately sized chapters, we sweep from 1871 to 1947 in just two. One result is the surprisingly skimpy treatment of the First World War. Clark would respond by saying that how you tell Prussian history changes once Prussia was, in the words of Frederick William IV in 1848, ‘merged into Germany’ (the word he used was the wonderfully Hegelian aufgehoben).

The idea that Prussia was undone by German unification has always been popular among nostalgic conservatives. They believe that the old Prussian virtues of duty, simplicity and patriarchal order were drowned by materialism and vulgar mass politics in the new Germany. Clark takes a much less cosy view. Whether writing about Bismarck, the Prussian-dominated German officer corps or the fiscal privileges enjoyed by noble landowners in regions east of the River Elbe, his arguments hew fairly closely to modern critical views. He leaves us in no doubt about the malign imprint Prussia left on unified Germany, yet he still makes the case that unification was Prussia’s undoing, and his arguments are mostly persuasive. The Prussian project remained fragile and incomplete in the 1860s: Prussia was still an amalgam of disparate elements. Unification intensified the faultlines: between provinces with very different histories, between the military and philosophical visages of Germaine de Staël’s ‘Janus-headed Prussia’, between the old Prussia clinging on for dear life and the new Prussia represented by Social Democrats and cultural experimentation. Prussian conservatism itself was split, as it had been since the 18th century, between centralising, statist authoritarianism and backwoods provincialism. In the decades before 1914, Prussia was ground between two alternative sets of allegiances that threatened its identity: nationalism and regional revival.

War and revolution gave these tensions another twist. Prussia did not disappear in 1918-19 (although some leading architects of the Weimar Constitution wanted it to); instead, with a reformed franchise, it became a bastion of democracy – and Social Democracy. The Social Democrats who inherited the formidable Prussian machinery of state showed far fewer qualms about the exercise of power than their comrades in the national assembly. They were removed only by extra-legal means, the coup in July 1932 that proved beyond reasonable doubt that Weimar democracy was dead. That coup in Prussia was mounted by Prussians, the same figures (Papen, Schleicher, Hindenburg) who would later miscalculate so disastrously in their dealings with Hitler. It would be easy to read the final days of Weimar as the work of the old gang, the revenge of unreconstructed, know-nothing Prussia. But I think Clark is right to press a slightly different case. Like Bismarck before them, these prime movers of the early 1930s were more marginal, certainly more hybrid figures, products of the flexible power politics that had created the new Germany. Hindenburg was ‘not a man of dogged, faithful service, but a man of image, manipulation and betrayal’.

National Socialists ransacked the Prussian past for stage-props. They showed less tender regard for the Prussian present. ‘The concept of the Prussian state’, Goering announced in June 1934, had been ‘subsumed into the Reich’. Apologetic writers have always liked to portray the Prussian elites as a bulwark of resistance to the Third Reich. In reality, many served the regime. The Schwerin family provided 52 party members, the Tresckows 30, the Schulenburgs 41, 17 of whom joined before Hitler came to power. The Wehrmacht, its officer corps still plump with the sons of old Prussian families, did not come through wartime atrocities with clean hands, as was once argued – and sometimes still is. But there was, of course, a conservative, aristocratic resistance: it, too, included a Schulenburg and a Tresckow, both of whom lost their lives. While the War of Liberation was pressed into propaganda service by the Nazis, a mythical memory of 1813 animated many resisters. As Christopher Clark says at the beginning of this spirited and enjoyable book, an important part of the story of Prussian history is the story of the story.