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Discipline and Decline

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947
By Christopher Clark
(Harvard University Press, 776 pp., $35)

On his way back from self-imposed exile in Paris, in 1844, Heinrich Heine caught a first glimpse of Prussian soldiers in Aachen, a city in the far west corner of Germany:

I wandered about in this dull little nest
For about an hour or more
Saw Prussian military once again
They looked much the same as before.
[ ... ]

Still the same wooden, pedantic
The same rectangular paces
And the usual frozen mask of disdain
Imprinted on each of their faces.

They still strut stiffly about the street
So groomed and so strictly moustached,
As if they had somehow swallowed
the stick
With which they used to be thrashed.

Much later, it was Winston Churchill who spoke, in 1941, of the "hideous onslaught" of the Nazi "war machine with its clanking, heel-clicking dandified Prussian officers." To which he later added: "The core of Germany is Prussia. There is the source of the recurring pestilence." And in 1947, blaming Prussia for Nazism and the ravages of World War II, the Allied Control Council in Germany declared: "The Prussian State, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany, has de facto ceased to exist."

The goal of Christopher Clark's valuable book is not simply to refute the stereotypes created by Heine, Churchill, and thousands of others throughout the ages. A historian from Australia now at the University of Cambridge, he has little personal incentive to lament or to celebrate the Prussian record. Instead, he shows how complicated the history of Prussia really was, and how exciting were the contrasts in its history between religious tolerance and intolerance, enlightenment and obscurantism, centralized power and regional particularism, the rule of law and ruthless authoritarianism. Regarding authoritarian practices, for example, Clark notes that in the years between 1815 and 1831 England and Wales executed sixty times as many people--mainly for crimes that we would now consider negligible--as Prussia did with approximately the same number of inhabitants. In other words, according to Clark, Prussia was basically a state like any other, with good sides and bad sides.

Invariably, historians and the public concentrate on the bad sides, which they locate in the notorious Prussian military. Yet one must admit that while far too many Prussian army officers presented themselves as the stiffest of martinets, others exhibited highly inventive military minds; and aristocratic Prussian officers formed the core of the group that plotted against Hitler in 1944. And while Churchill was undoubtedly right in describing many Prussian soldiers as dull, over-disciplined, and docile, they, and by extension all German soldiers, were also among the most self-reliant, enterprising, and courageous troopers the world has ever known. This, as well as their brutal training, helps to explain why they were able to fight successfully against numerically and materially superior enemies, whether under Frederick the Great in the wars of the eighteenth century; or against Napoleon, especially beginning in 1813; or at Koniggratz against the Austrians in 1866; or in the Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870; and finally in the two world wars.

Not without reason did armies throughout the world imitate the Prussian example of military training. But we also know, from the fine work of Omer Bartov and others, that during World War II the German armed forces executed almost 15,000 of their own soldiers for such crimes as desertion, subversion, and cowardice. Meanwhile, the American army executed only a single soldier for desertion. Also during World War II, soldiers of the Wehrmacht, whether or not from Prussia, massacred innocent civilians, especially Jews, with nearly the same abandon that marked Heinrich Himmler's SS. Obviously, then, Prussia and its army were full of contradictions, and Clark analyzes them astutely in his book, which is certainly the best recent history of Prussia.

Today it is hard to fathom that in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Germany did not exist, while Prussia was recognized as a great European power. Then, in 1871, Prussia established its hegemony over the rest of the German lands except Austria, while simultaneously creating a greater unit, the German empire. Further south, at approximately the same time, the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia merged into, and took over, the rest of Italy. And then, after 1918, Russia functioned as the dominant force in the Soviet Union. But only Prussia was subsequently rejected by the world, and even by the nation that it had led, while the greater unit, Germany, received universal recognition after the war. As Clark shows, even today, more than sixty years after World War II, there is a better chance for the political rebirth of the province of Brandenburg, which was once the nucleus of Prussia, than of Prussia as a whole.

How best to portray Prussia? It used to be a small, landlocked place in medieval Europe, characterized mostly by unproductive sand and monotonous birch forests. Brandenburg's center, Berlin, could boast nothing of the wealth and the glory of the great Hanseatic cities Hamburg, Bremen, and Lubeck, or of such great commercial and cultural capitals as Cologne, Frankfurt, Nuremberg, and Augsburg. As late as the seventeenth century, Berlin and its environs included only 10,000 people, when the core population of London was around 130,000. The principal redeeming grace of Brandenburg was that its margrave was one of the seven (later eight) electors who chose the German kings. This sometimes allowed him to sell his vote to the highest bidder. Not that the title of king (and the complementary title of Holy Roman Emperor, the latter bestowed by the pope) amounted to much direct political power in the conglomerate of virtually sovereign principalities, free cities, and free noble estates that constituted the empire. Still, to be the emperor or the king was, let us say, a prestigious position. Then, in 1417, a member of the wealthy South-German Hohenzollern family purchased Brandenburg from Emperor-King Sigismund for 400,000 Hungarian gold guilders. A century or so later, the margraves converted to Protestantism, which strengthened their power against the Catholic Hapsburgs who themselves began to consider the imperial position as their birthright.

Like the Holy Roman Empire, Brandenburg was itself a mosaic of self- governing territories over which the margrave had little control. This was particularly true during the Thirty Years' War, when Brandenburg, like the rest of Germany, was devastated by marauding armies. Small wonder, then, that the Prussian jurist Samuel Pufendorf developed one of the first significant philosophical theories on the need to strengthen the state. In his view, the necessitas of the state overruled the libertas of the estates. What Brandenburg needed was a truly strong state--not an easy task, in view of the inadequacy of state income and the near-absence of industry, commerce, and an urban middle class. What helped was the legendary religious tolerance of the Hohenzollerns: they strengthened their income by inviting industrious Protestant fugitives from France and the Hapsburg territories, as well as Jews. Meanwhile, the Hohenzollerns also married wisely, inheriting West German lands in the process as well as so-called Ducal Prussia, a large province later called East Prussia, which was then under the sovereignty of the king of Poland.

It was only a question of time before the clever margraves would win full sovereignty over Ducal Prussia. In 1701, elector Frederick III of Brandenburg (nearly all Hohenzollerns were called Frederick, Frederick William, or William) crowned himself king in Prussia in what was then Konigsberg and is now, somewhat surrealistically, Russian Kaliningrad. This was another clever move, because in the Holy Roman Empire nobody, except the king of Bohemia, was allowed to call himself king; but Prussia lay outside the boundaries of the empire. Within the same century, Frederick II, also called the Great, proclaimed himself king not in but of Prussia, a title that then remained with the Hohenzollerns until the abdication and flight of the kaiser to the Netherlands in November, 1918.

Clark's book is an unwieldy masterpiece, in which charming anecdotes and serious intellectual analyses mix comfortably with political and military history and descriptions of cultural and social phenomena, such as the glorious activity of the intellectual salons in Berlin that were established in the late eighteenth century by fashionable young ladies of the Jewish merchant aristocracy. (Is it any wonder that, a hundred years later, the co-religionists of Henriette Herz and Rahel Varnhagen could not believe that their beloved Berliners had turned against them?) And even though the careers of the many Fredericks, Frederick Williams, and Williams can sometimes make for confusing and disconcerting reading, Clark's book seldom becomes dull, owing to the elegance of its style and the colorfulness of some of its powerful characters.

There was, for instance, Frederick William I, an infamous martinet who personally thrashed in the street inhabitants of Berlin who seemed to misbehave. He imprisoned his son, the future Frederick II, for rebellious behavior, and then forced the son to watch from his cell the decapitation of his best friend. Frederick William I greatly enlarged his army and extended the military obligation of the Junker landowners, thereby helping to create a permanent officer corps; and because he never fought a war, he left a large and highly perfected military machine to his son when he died in 1740. The latter then engaged in a series of wars and conquests that made his country a great power, mostly at the expense of Austria. Frederick the Great also reorganized the country's administration. Although he knew a dozen languages, he liked German the least, and spoke and wrote mostly in French; he played and composed music, and as an "enlightened absolutist" he became the darling of the French philosophes.

Perhaps Clark should have dwelled a little more on the growing military and labor obligation of the East Elbian peasants, which made them not much better than slaves. True, Clark shows that even in the east, many peasants were not serfs but dues-paying tenants, or owned their own land, or worked as wage earners. Some were even wealthy enough to fulfill their labor obligation to the landlord by hiring the services of farmhands. Still, it is not clear whether these independent peasants made a real difference, socially and economically. The picture is still alive in my imagination, culled from many books, of poor peasants toiling without pay on a Junker's estate, or serving in the military under the harsh command of a cadet son of the same Junker family. So maybe the adjutant of Frederic the Great, Georg Heinrich Berenhorst, was right when he observed that "the Prussian monarchy is not a country which has an army, but an army which has a country."

What was new and effective under Frederick the Great became obsolete by the time of the Napoleonic wars, during which Prussia suffered catastrophic defeats and would redeem itself only toward the end with the help, at least in part, of an awakening Prussian and pan-German patriotism among the population. As a result of defeats suffered at Jena and Auerstedt, the Prussian elite developed a sense of vulnerability that permeated not only the Prussians but also all German leaders, eventually even those who appeared so self-confident and triumphalist in the twentieth century.

Napoleon's final defeat ensured that the kingdom would emerge much enlarged from the war, with potentially prosperous west German possessions. This new and relatively large state, parts of which were not contiguous and in which religions and cultural traditions were diverse, was transformed by such great reformers as Stein, Hardenberg, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Clausewitz, and Humboldt. How successful the reformers were is debatable. They created a superb educational system that transformed the Prussians into the first literate people in the world. Their land reform liberated the peasants from feudal obligations, although, as the critics said, it also liberated the peasants from a large part of their ancestral land. A large supply of manpower thereby became available for the development of industry.

As for the Prussian army, it again became a very efficient military machine; but instead of being a people's army, as some reformers intended, it continued as an instrument of absolute monarchial power. The introduction of universal military service enlarged enormously the number of men available to the killing machine set up by the state. As a result, Prussia set an example for all the other states to follow. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, at least 1 percent of the adult population of Europe was in active service, and 10 percent of the population (most healthy males between the ages of eighteen and forty-two) had received military training. They could all be mobilized at a moment's notice. Among all of Prussia's contributions to modern civilization, this was undoubtedly the most ominous one, and the one with the direst consequences.

It was the Prussian army that put down the liberal nationalist revolt of 1848 in Germany and western Poland, and it was the needs of the army that caused Otto von Bismarck, the minister-president of Prussia, to collect taxes without the approval of the Prussian parliament. Later the parliament retroactively approved this violation of the constitution. Bismarck used an unlikely combination of Prussian conservative landowners and business-oriented German liberal nationalists to control the national legislature. For the deputies, prosperity and the creation of a great united Germany were more important than constitutional legitimacy and their own legislative power.

In 1870, war broke out with France. Clark argues that it was not really Bismarck who provoked it. Still, what finally matters is that France's defeat allowed the Prussian minister-president to proclaim a German empire. It was, in accordance with Bismarck's wishes, neither completely united nor strongly federalist. In an attempt to satisfy the requirements of both modern nationalism and feudal particularism, Bismarck created a Federal Council in which Prussia's votes always outweighed those of the others, as well as a lower house based on universal secret male suffrage which had only limited powers. The constituting states of the empire were tied together by the person of the Hohenzollern emperor, as well as by the imperial chancellor, who was also Prussia's minister-president and thus possessed extraordinary power. (Still, even Bismarck was ultimately dismissed by William II, who was both German emperor and Prussian king.) Extremism of any sort was restrained by Prussia's indirect three-tier electoral system, which divided the electorate of adult males into three groups according to the taxes they paid. The least numerous first tier elected as many deputies in the Diet as the more numerous middle tier and the vast third tier. Thus it transpired that in 1908, for instance, 16. 7 percent of the voters gave 47.9 percent of the seats in the Diet to the elitist Conservative Party. The Prussian electoral system guaranteed that Germany as a whole would not become radically liberal, or socialist, or nationalist.

And yet Bismarck failed in the long run. Even though he opted for a moderate version of German nationalism, he unwittingly prepared the way for the decline of his Prussian homeland and the rise of an aggressive all-German imperialism. In Clark's persuasive argument, the creation of the German empire was not only Prussia's undoing, it was also fatal for the values that had made Prussia great: local patriotism, bureaucratic decency, religious toleration.

Clark does not seem to believe in the theory of arrested German political development--the German Sonderweg or "special path," in which the political culture failed to keep pace with innovation and growth in the economic sphere. Clark believes instead that late nineteenth-century German society harbored plenty of liberals, a large and growing bourgeoisie, and a democratically inclined socialist movement, but that all of these progressive currents were subordinated to the perceived need to create a Germany that claimed "its place in the sun" as a world power.

One of the chief culprits in that latter endeavor was Emperor William II, the last Hohenzollern on the throne. According to Clark, the kaiser's grandfather, William I, under whom the empire had come into being, "aspired to be the personification of Prussian simplicity, self-discipline, and thrift." William II, by contrast, is rightly described as a megalomaniac and a fool. Moreover, as he was becoming less and less respected, two ruthless military men, Field Marshal Hindenburg and General Ludendorff, were able to assume and to exercise near-dictatorial powers in the last years of World War I. This, in turn, enabled the great imperial-royal institutions such as the army, the churches (especially the Lutheran church), the judiciary, and the bureaucracy to detach themselves from the person of the monarch, and to survive almost intact into the postwar republic. Yet these institutions never really accepted the new democratic constitution. For this reason, the monarchists in Weimar Germany, of whom there were many, did not desire the return of the Hohenzollerns, but searched instead for a new leader. They found him, eventually, in the person of Adolf Hitler.

Amazingly, as Clark well explains, Prussia came into its own, at least temporarily, in the Weimar republic. This largest of all provinces in a somewhat centralized republic was led mostly by Social Democrats. Since the army was anything but loyal to the Weimar government, it was the Prussian police who defended the republican institutions against Nazis and Communists. Thus, ironically, Prussia, which had been partly responsible for the failure of the liberal-democratic experiment in pre-World War I Germany, now stood as a bulwark of democracy. But in 1932 a coup by Franz von Papen, a reactionary German chancellor, put an end to this autonomy. Subsequently Prussia was mortally weakened as a state by the Nazis, who preferred a centralized administration run by party leaders. Thus a truly united Germany, which had been the dream of all nationalists, came to exist only during the twelve years of National Socialist rule.

The origins of National Socialism must be sought in innumerable German and European sources, among them the ravages of World War I, inflation, militarism, Social Darwinism, extreme nationalism, class conflict, the fear of Bolshevism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, the desire for ethnic cleansing, political revanchism, and so on. But Prussian tradition should not be counted among them--at least not the tradition of Prussian enlightenment, bureaucratic probity, respect for a state based on law, and religious toleration. Only the tradition of unconditional obedience to authority, to the orders of superiors, would qualify as a significant factor in the making of the eventual catastrophe. Or perhaps it is useless to try to generalize about a country as complex and as multifaceted as Prussia once was.

Prussia's rise and downfall was faster than that of most other great states. Clark beautifully explains the rise of Prussia, but he does not, alas, point to the main cause for its fall: the great migration of peoples from east to west in Europe during the twentieth century. It brought Slavic speakers into formerly German-speaking areas of the Prussian state. Or perhaps we should say that the twentieth century brought the Slavic speakers back where they had been before the conquests by the Teutonic knights and by Prussia. Prussians and Germans were partly responsible for these massive displacements with their ruthless policies of expansionism and colonization during the first and second world wars. As a result of the crimes committed by the German armies and the SS during World War II, it became easy after the war to drive out some eleven million German settlers from lands in which they had been living for centuries. But the migration of Germans from the poverty-stricken east to the increasingly prosperous west would have occurred even without the wars.

Indeed, it was not only the history of Prussia that came to an end after World War II, but also that of the German speakers and the German culture in the east. And the end came also to the Ashkenazi Jews, whom the Germans had decided to kill. In this they enjoyed the assistance of many East Europeans, who thereby acquired the entire region for themselves. As for the descendants of the once proud Prussians, they are today the not-so-unhappy citizens of a democratic state.

István Deák is Seth Low Professor Emeritus at Columbia University and the author of, among other books, Essays on Hitler's Europe (University of Nebraska Press).