Thirteen years ago, I was driving with a German friend through the Russian city of Kaliningrad (until 1945 the east Prussian city of Königsberg) when my friend said, ‘There’s the old German army barracks.’ As we stared glumly at the bleak building, darkness settled on me, brought on by three words, each — on its own — innocuous: German, army, barracks. The old clichés rose again: discipline, efficiency, inhumanity, conquest — images, I realised, not of Germany but of Prussia.
There is, however, another view: that the austere but enlightened Prussian ethos — that of an impartial civil service, a liberal penal code, an excellent education system — was, under the Nazis, corrupted by uncouth Bavarians and Austrian sentimentalists. After all, were not many of those involved in the plot to kill Hitler in July 1944 Prussians, and from the castigated Prussian military caste? Yet July 1944 was never a mass movement but an affair of the elite whose fastidiousness and judgment had been suspended during Hitler’s successes: conservative, romantic nationalists, physically immensely brave but morally nebulous.
When one talks to Prussian aristocrats about Hitler, the chief impression received is that their parents and grandparents thought him an outrageously common little man — which he certainly was, although he had worse characteristics. Their opinion is interesting because, as Christopher Clark shows, the aristocracy retained an astonishing degree of influence in Prussia. The collapse of the Weimar Republic and the coming to power of Hitler happened at least partly because of the influence of a group of Prussian landowners over Hindenburg, President of Germany at the time. Bismarck came from a Junker background, retaining the contemptuous self-confidence of that class. He created the first welfare state primarily to emasculate the socialists, to preserve the status quo. Prussia did not become a constitutional state with an elected parliament until 1848.
A combination of neurosis and lack of a democratically achieved national identity dogged Prussia. What is the Prussian equivalent of the British John Bull or the French Marianne? The answer is the heel-clicking officer, a Junker in uniform; and this despite extraordinary Prussian scientific and intellectual achievements like those of Kant, possibly Europe’s greatest philosopher.
But Prussian genius could surprisingly often be accompanied by hysteria or extremism: Treitschke, Hegel, Marx, Kleist, Bismarck and King Frederick William I make a brilliant list but one touched also by darkness. The country, too, was not always lucky in its ruling family of Hohenzollern, many of whom were extremely odd. Even Frederick the Great, the most gifted hereditary monarch in European history, showed a sadistic detachment in personal relations, understandable perhaps because as a young man he had been forced by his father to watch the execution of his closest friend. Frederick added to the confusion of Prussia’s identity by refusing to write or speak German, choosing Voltaire and France as his cultural ideals.
Clark’s book, a survey of Prussian history from 1600 to 1947, is well-written, even sometimes sprightly, although it is hard to make easy reading of matters such as Pietism or the administrative reforms of the Baron Stein. Iron Kingdom’s triumph lies in a narrative structure that is even more impressive than the mass of detail that forms it; and one feels secure in the hands not only of a scholar but of a humane and fair interpreter of history. Clark shows that, for many years, Prussia was a nation that lacked even a geographical identity through its loose, often separated, conquered or inherited territories on the harsh, sandy soil of north-eastern Germany. Through this came a chronic instability, exacerbated in the 17th century by the devastating Thirty Years War.
Was it any wonder that Germans and Prussians craved order after this horrific conflict that began with differences over religion but became a power struggle involving much of western Europe? Afterwards came years of Prussian toleration, to lure talented people of different beliefs to an under-populated, inhospitable land. Unfortunately this was balanced later by often cynical exploitation by politicians like Bismarck not only of religious differences but of anti-Semitism as well.
Certainly the Prussian quest for stability could take the form of conquest, and the Poles and the Austrians suffered terribly because of this. But was Frederick the Great’s or Bismarck’s Prussia any more cynically acquisitive than the France of Louis XIV and Napoleon or, for that matter, imperial Britain? Did the 18th- and 19th-century Prussian armies behave any worse after their victories over the Austrians and the French than Napoleon’s soldiers in Spain or in the Rhineland and Westphalia?
Lacking the solidity of a nation that has grown organically, Prussia became first an idea, then a caricature, this process gathering pace after what seemed to be its greatest triumph, the unification of Germany under Prussian dominance in 1871. It was of the army or of reactionary, coarse Junkers that people thought when they heard the word Prussia. The country’s administrative achievements or its nurturing of the German enlightenment were eclipsed by military success. In the legend, the many Prussian defeats, some of which had occurred even during the time of the great Frederick, were forgotten.
The militarism of the new Germany, one of the forces that held it together, became more evident in the hysterical outbursts of the Prussian Kaiser Wilhelm II and the descent of the country during the first world war into a dictatorship under the Prussian generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Germany’s enemies seized on the propaganda value of this; and, later, the Nazis trumpeted the so-called Prussian martial virtues, despite the civilised nature of Prussian government during the Weimar republic.
Prussians, unsure of their frontiers, terrified of bolshevism and civil disorder, voted in their millions for Hitler, who also attracted many of the Junker class. In 1947, the victorious Allies declared the end of Prussia. It suited them to use the Nazi version of the country as a shorthand for the horrors of the Third Reich, to offer hope that Prussia’s abolition might help to create a new, democratic, peaceful land. Now the caricature lives on, to haunt Germany and Europe, showing how harsh and forgetful history can be.