Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947..
Belknap Press. 800 pages. $35.00
With his bristling waxed moustache, Kaiser Wilhelm ii of Germany was a man of fierce countenance. Upon seeing his photograph in 1890, a French general noted that “he looks like a declaration of war.” He sounded like one, too. “When your Kaiser orders it, you must shoot even your father and mother,” he once solemnly admonished an audience. Your Kaiser had a tendency to get carried away by the sound of his own voice.
During World War i, strutting about with his title of “Supreme Warlord” (which sounds even more impressive in German: Oberster Kriegsherr), Wilhelm would speak enthusiastically of “piles of corpses six feet high” and wax poetic about a superhuman German sergeant “who killed 27 Frenchmen with 45 bullets.” Little wonder then, that to the English-speaking world he became the very symbol of the Horrible Hun, Mr. Prussia himself.
Actually he was a weak, insecure, and not overly bright man, who tried to compensate for a paralyzed arm by appearing extra martial. His uncle Edward vii of England pretty much had his number, remarking before the war that Wilhelm’s “tremendous vanity” would make him easy prey for the nationalist flatterers surrounding him: “As he is even more cowardly than vain, he will quiver in front of those flatterers, when some day under pressure from the generals they will call on him to unsheathe his sword. He will not be brave enough to talk sense into them. He will capitulate in the most abject fashion. When he unleashes war, it will not be on his own initiative, not because he is mad about war, but because he is weak.”
It seems fair to say that Prussia has produced its share of unattractive people. Count Otto von Bismarck once gleefully confessed to having “spent the night hating,” and on another occasion defined duty as “that sense . . . which enables a man to allow himself to be shot dead alone in the dark.” Not to be outdone by her husband, Mrs. Bismarck thought it only right and proper to “shoot and stab all the French, down to the little babies.”
Three times within a span of 75 years war emanated from Prussian soil: in 1870, in 1914, and in 1939. As a result, Prussia is often described as the seat of mindless militarism, a vast barracks echoing with shouted commands and the sounds of goose-stepping jackboots, run by evil Junkers. Already one of Frederick the Great’s adjutants had noted that “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.”
According to Cambridge historian Christopher Clark, the author, in 2000, of a lively biography of Wilhelm from which the above quotations are taken, Prussia’s war record has led politicians and historians to draw a direct line from Frederick the Great through Bismarck to Hitler. This was certainly how Churchill, Eden, and Roosevelt saw it. “The core of Germany is Prussia,” stated Churchill in the House of Commons in 1943. “There is the source of the recurring pestilence.” Accordingly, the state of Prussia was officially abolished by the Allied Control Council in 1947.
In his new book, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947, Clark, reader of modern history at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, sets out to tell the story of how a small sandy principality around Brandenburg achieved great power and became the leading force for German unity, only to blow it. One of the central arguments in the book is that “Germany was not Prussia’s fulfilment, but its undoing.”
But rather than detailing a grim, inevitable progression towards catastrophe, Clark tells a somewhat more complicated story. He sees Prussian history as periods of abject weakness and uncertainty alternating with periods of great strength. Thus, during the Thirty Years War, the region had been devastated by Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus and the imperial warlord Wallenstein’s mercenaries. And both in the Seven Years War and in the Napoleonic wars, Prussia came close to being wiped off the map.
The source of much of Prussia’s unhappiness through the centuries, according to Clark, is “structural,” going back to the remembered horrors of the Thirty Years War: The country lacked natural defensible borders and, sandwiched as it was by France on the one side and Russia on the other, felt permanently surrounded. This in his view explains much of the unpredictability and vacillation, the “restless activism” that characterizes Prussian foreign policy, and also “its sharp undertone of vulnerability.”
Frederick Wilhelm I of Prussia once instructed his 12-year-old son Fritz, who was to become Frederick the Great: “Make sure always to have a strong army; there is no better friend and without it you will not be able to assert yourself. Our neighbours have no greater wish than to pounce on us and destroy us.” What had started as light pats on the boy’s chin for emphasis turned into full-fledged smacks as the old king got carried away by the sheer force of his own argument.
This need for security runs through Prussian history like a red thread. We meet it for the first time in the writings of Frederick the Great’s great-grandfather, Frederick Wilhelm, known as the Great Elector, whom Frederick the Great credited with having laid “the solid foundations” for Prussia, and who is the first of what Clark describes as a freakish run of gifted Hohenzollerns. “A ruler is not treated with respect unless he has his own troops and resources,” the Great Elector observed in 1667. And this, in his view, necessitated a proper standing army, not the amateurish militia system favored by local gentry suspicious of central government. Respect also required a bit of pomp and circumstance and an elegant capital. To improve his standing in Europe, the Great Elector’s son had himself promoted to king in Königsberg in 1701 under the name of Frederick i. This Fredrick was big on the baroque, and he built up Berlin as a suitable stage for the Prussian kings to act on — but, as Frederick the Great put it, he was a little too enamored of “ceremony and wasteful extravagance.”
Upon becoming king, Frederick the Great’s father immediately fired most of the court including, as Clark notes, the chocolatier and the castrato singers. As documented by the slapping incident, Frederick Wilhelm i was a temperamental and harsh character, given to scribbling unfavorable comments about his ministers in the margins of official documents. “The rascal wants an increase,” he said of one. “I’ll count it out on his back.” Instead of a lavish court, he ran a Tobacscollegium, a back room of manly men who would meet to discuss the issues of the day while puffing on their pipes.
His manners may have been crude, but Frederick Wilhelm i was the essence of the institution builder and is considered the main creator of the Prussian civil service and military state — built on fear of God, strict morals, industry, and thrift. While traveling in East Prussia as a crown prince during a time of famine and pestilence, he had witnessed widespread corruption and incompetence, and as king he was determined to root it out. He insisted that his ministers and officials be at their desks, including on Saturdays, and one thieving councillor was hanged right in front of his office as a warning to others. “The image of a just and thrifty monarch dedicated to the service of the state came to embody a specifically Prussian vision of kingship,” notes Clark.
During his reign, the army doubled from 40,000 to 80,000 men. Instead of relying on forced recruiting, which upset the local economies and made young men flee the country in droves, he introduced an efficient conscription system, raising the fourth largest army in Europe despite Prussia’s only ranking thirteenth in terms of manpower. But his pride and joy was his show regiment of giants at Potsdam “with hands the size of dinner plates,” whom he would go to rather extreme lengths to acquire — including kidnapping — and whom he ordered immortalized in full-length oil portraits. He often appeared in uniform himself, Clark says, which came to characterize the Hohenzollerns, but he was hesitant to get his beloved army bloodied abroad.
His son had no such compunction. As a child, Fredrick the Great was small and effeminate, forever falling off his horse; he much preferred to read novels in bed and dress in rococo finery. This understandably did not sit well with his father who, as noted, treated him with great severity. But once he was king, all Frederick’s indolence disappeared, and he used the military instrument his father had left him to incorporate Silesia, Austria’s richest province, into Prussia, Austria having been severely weakened by recent wars. He fought over Silesia three times, in 1740, in 1744–45, and in the Seven Years War, and conquering this mine-rich region was vital to Prussia’s further development.
The Seven Years War saw Europe’s traditional alliance pattern broken, with Austria siding with France and Britain with Prussia. This put Frederick up against France, Austria, Russia, and Sweden. Undaunted, he scored impressive victories at Rossbach, where despite being outnumbered two to one, he lost 500 men compared to the French-Austrian imperial force’s 10,000, and again at Leuthen, against similar odds. Clark vividly describes how Frederick’s troops would advance “like moving walls,” as it occurred to one unhappy Austrian soldier, “three ranks deep at ninety paces a minute and with fixed bayonets.” His favorite battlefield tactic was the flanking attack, and thanks to their intensive drilling, his troops were able to turn in any direction “as if on invisible pivots” and to redeploy twice as fast as his opponents.
But as Clark points out, Frederick was not infallible. He had a number of close shaves during the Seven Years War, and in fact was victorious in only eight of the war’s 16 battles. Much of the time, he was just trying to stay in the game. Indeed, he was about to go down in defeat when what is known as “the miracle of the house of Brandenburg” occurred: the sudden death of Czarina Elizabeth of Russia. Her son Czar Peter, who was a Frederick fan, removed Russia from the anti-Prussian lineup upon succeeding her, thereby saving Prussia.
Some historians have portrayed Frederick’s engagement in the Silesian wars as a quintessential bit of Prussian nastiness, but as Clark notes, this was quite normal behavior among European nations at the time. And William Pitt hailed him as England’s ally and “Europe’s unbreakable barrier against the mightiest and most malevolent league that has ever threatened humanity’s independence.”
What in Clark’s opinion was notable about Frederick was his cool judgement, the absence of temptation to overreach himself, and his calm persistence in pursuit of his Silesian objective. Carl von Clausewitz later gave Frederick an approving nod for the same: “while pursuing a great object with limited means, to undertake nothing beyond his powers, and just enough to gain his objective.” As a result, Clark notes, “Prussia spent fewer years at war during Frederick’s reign than any major European power.”
As for Frederick’s having turned Prussia into an armed camp, and despite the words of the adjutant quoted above, Clark makes some important distinctions: Out of a total population of 5.8 million people, Frederick’s army, by now Europe’s third largest, numbered 195,000, or 3.38 percent, which comes close to the East German Cold War figure of 3.9 percent. But the percentage figure is misleading, Clark notes, as only 81,000 members of Fredrick’s army were native Prussians, which makes the figure a more normal 1.42 percent.
This, according to Clark, made Prussia “a highly militarized state,” which he defines as a state which spends a hefty chunk of its budget on its army, but not necessarily “a highly militarized society.” He does not buy the claim that the army totally dominated the towns in which soldiers were garrisoned, cowing citizens and magistrates. And neither does he detect much evidence in the countryside of pitiable serfs slaving for their Junker masters.
Frederick, it should be remembered, was not just a warrior and military strategist, he was also a scholar, composer, and patron of the arts. He saw himself as a roi philosophe who wrote in French and kept Voltaire as an honored guest at his court. He was an adherent of the humanitarian ideals of the enlightenment, he allowed limited freedom of speech, and he acted as the highest protector of the legal system, introducing more humane punishments. Thus Madame de Staël could speak of “Janus-faced Prussia,” at the same time militarily sharp and enlightened.
Like his father, Frederick saw himself as “the first servant of the state,” and, though he did recognize the need for royal ritual, he felt uncomfortable with the cult of patriotism that sprang up around him and went about in his old officer’s coat stained “with long streaks of Spanish snuff.” He deemed the idea for a heroic engraving showing him as the returning conqueror from the Seven Years War “excessively theatrical.” The only painting of himself he approved of was one showing him looking rather like a harmless old pensioner.
In 1752, Frederick wrote, “The power of Prussia is not founded on any intrinsic wealth, but uniquely rests on the efforts of industry,” and for all his success, he would constantly fret about his country’s limited resources and warn against complacency.
Everything has collapsed into smallness,” wrote Mirabeau on Frederick’s death, which ended that streak of gifted Hohenzollerns. Between the French Revolution and Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia in 1806, Clark describes Prussian foreign policy as “a period of febrile oscillations,” trying to play all sides and leaving the regime with a huge credibility problem. As a Prussian diplomat complained to his king, Fredrick Wilhelm iii, “Your majesty has been placed in the singular position of being simultaneously allied with both Russia and France. This situation cannot last.”
Having desperately tried to avoid tangling with Napoleon, Prussia declared war on France in 1806, after Napoleon had compromised the German neutrality zone. Cocky Prussian officers were seen sharpening their sabres on the steps of the French embassy in Berlin. But things had stagnated since Frederick the Great’s day. “Behind the fine façade, all was mildewed,” Carl von Clausewitz noted. The Prussian military was a parade- ground army of what military historian David Chandler called “walking muskets,” to whom war had become an abstract, geometric system. As one late-nineteenth-century theorist noted, “a real strategist of that period believed that he could lead no more than three men over the gutter without a logarithm table.”
The Prussians were totally unprepared for the new-style Napoleonic Blitzkrieg, with its self-contained, integrated army corps of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Accordingly, the Prussian army suffered a huge defeat at Jena and Auerstedt. To complete the humiliation, when captured Prussian officers begged not to be taken through the streets of Berlin, Napoleon predictably made a special point of marching them past the French embassy there. Frederick Wilhelm’s hopes that the Russians with whom he had entered into alliance would save his skin were dashed the following year when Napoleon beat Czar Alexander’s forces at Friedland.
At the peace negotiations between Napoleon and Alexander at Tilsit, where the two emperors met on an elegant barge in the middle of the river Memel, the Prussian king didn’t get to see Napoleon until the second day. Frederick Wilhelm did not much impress Napoleon, who remarked that his conversation was all about “military headgear, buttons and leather satchels.” And he had to pay a stiff price: In the treaty of Tilsit, half of Prussia’s territory was annexed by France.
When news of the success of Spanish guerrillas against Napoleon’s troops reached Berlin in 1809, military reformers like Scharnhorst and Gniesenau took heart and argued for fomenting a public uprising against the French. Frederick Wilhelm dismissed the idea, fearing that his own dynasty might be endangered. So Prussia had to play host to Napoleon’s army as it prepared for the Russian invasion, which brought back the collective folk memory of the Thirty Years War, with peasants having to pull Napoleon’s cannons for lack of horses. In disgust, Scharnhorst retired from public life, while his colleagues Gniesenau and Clausewitz sought Russian service. “Prussia’s exposed position between east and west had never been so dramatically exposed,” writes Clark.
Forced, finally, by popular sentiment, Fredrick Wilhelm iii again threw in his lot with the Russians. The joint Russian-Prussian armies were narrowly beaten in the battles of Lützen and Bautzen, but they inflicted serious casualties on Napoleon. When the Austrians joined the coalition, Napoleon lost the battle of Leipzig (known as the Battle of the Peoples), and in Napoleon’s last great spasm, it was Field Marshall Blucher who came to Wellington’s assistance at Waterloo and saved the day for anti-Napoleonic forces.
With time, Clark writes, the Prussian effort against Napoleon grew into an epic myth of German national liberation. And as elsewhere in Europe, 1848 was the year of radical upheaval in Germany. “The only thing missing now is the guillotine,” said Queen Elisabeth upon seeing the angry crowds in front of her palace, and her husband, Frederick Wilhelm iv, was forced to make various concessions, some of which were later retracted. But pressure for reform and greater democratization made them seem inevitable, and they probably would have been had it not been for one man: Bismarck.
Bismarck, who became prime minister in 1862, was a man unencumbered by moral scruples, whose sole aim was the furtherance of the interests of Prussia and the Hohenzollern dynasty. German unity, which he had first dismissed as a swindle, was his vehicle. With that purpose in mind, he entered into ever-changing alliances, playing different groups in society against one another while remaining firmly in control. By thus shoring up monarchical power, he prevented the country from developing into a normal parliamentary democracy.
Bismarck’s great skill was crisis management. As he put it, “Great crises provide the weather most conductive to Prussia’s growth,” and so he set about engineering them. He started off small in 1864 by swallowing the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, which had been under Danish rule. That worked like a charm, and two years later it was Austria’s turn. Here, Clark’s account can profitably be supplemented with Geoffrey Wawro’s two brilliant books, The Austro-Prussian War (Cambridge University Press, 1996) and The Franco-Prussian War (Cambridge, 2003). In fact, the Prussians had unsuccessfully tried to challenge Austria’s dominance back in 1850, but now Austria was severely weakened by recent defeats to the French in Italy and, in Bismarck’s view, ripe for a lesson.
The general staff chief Helmuth von Moltke was the man to turn Bismarck’s ideas into reality. Knowing the value of fast mobilization, Moltke had overseen the construction of an excellent railway net, which drastically increased his ability to move men and materiel, though King Wilhelm i’s dithering in declaring war prevented Moltke from taking full advantage of this.
Doctrinally, the Prussian army had abandoned the Napoleonic shock tactics of massed battalions charging with the bayonet: Faced with the need to raise new armies fast, Revolutionary France had realized the impossibility of teaching soldiers the finer points of elegant eighteenth-century warfare, and massed battalions were their answer. Against slow-firing muzzle loaders this worked fine. Against the new breech loaders it decidedly did not, and the Prussians knew that. But the Austrians still clung to the old ways — muzzle loaders, bayonet charges, and cavalry attacks — and suffered the consequences in the Battle of Königgrätz, where they had been unwise enough to fight with their backs to the River Elbe. They were now a second-rate power, “the extended arm of Prussia,” as King Wilhelm put it.
France figured next in Bismarck’s designs for creating German unity. Louis Napoleon, the great man’s nephew, had proclaimed himself Emperor of the French in 1853, and he had helped the Piedmontese occupy Lombardy, causing concerns about a Napoleonic revival. But Napoleon iii was an ersatz Napoleon utterly lacking his uncle’s skills, and his military was a meal-ticket army consisting of ill-trained, potbellied, elderly soldiers who kept reenlisting. With typical cunning, Bismarck managed to create a situation in which Napoleon looked like the aggressor and the greater threat to the European order.
In the war against Austria, the Prussian artillery had been inferior to the Austrian. This little error Moltke had since corrected — his problem was now the superior French rifle — but thanks to the quality of their leadership, their flexible small-unit tactics, and their fast-firing mobile batteries, the Prussians made mincemeat of the French. In the battle of Sedan in 1870, Napoleon himself was among the prisoners. To bring a quick end to the war, Bismarck ordered the shelling of Paris; Moltke was not keen on shelling civilians, but Bismarck’s view prevailed. After the French surrender, Wilhelm was proclaimed Kaiser of the German Reich in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, the high-water mark of Prussia.
Unpleasant as he was, Bismarck, like Frederick the Great, had that rare quality of knowing when to stop. Being the supreme realist, he took carefully calculated risks, he knew how to subordinate military to political aims, and he always had a fallback position. After the victory over the French, Bismarck called Germany a “satiated power” and he warned that Germany should not behave like “a nouveau riche who has just come into money and then offended everyone by pointing to the coins in his pocket.” And like Frederick, he was not given to hubris, but was always very pessimistic, realizing the ephemeral nature of success.
Unfortunately for Prussia and the rest of Europe, Bismarck had created a system only he could operate. The satirical publication Kladderadatsch compared his high-wire act to a tightrope walker’s feat crossing Niagara Falls. Once he was no longer there, this system was bound to unravel. This happened in 1888 when Wilhelm ii, to whom Bismarck referred as “that stupid boy” and who was only too eager to get rid of him, accepted his resignation. (Bismarck constantly threatened to resign. It was not meant to be taken seriously.) With Bismarck gone, there was no one to restrain the militarists. Instead of realpolitik, Germany pursued military dream politics. According to Clark, “Prussia’s most fateful legacy to the new Germany was a perennial uncertainty about the demarcation between civil and military authority,” with the Prussian military “remaining a foreign body within the German constitution.”
From the beginning, Wilhelm ii’s court reeked of decadence, as some public scandals later revealed. He surrounded himself with sycophants, strapping big fellows who minced about in uniform using feminine nicknames for each other, with Der Kaiser going under the name of “Das Liebchen.” Der Kaiser was very much a loose Krupp cannon, unaware of the effects of his rhetorical bombast as he pushed for his beloved battleship construction program and for Germany to be a world power. But he was essentially a figurehead. In World War i, real power rested with the general staff under Hindenburg and Ludendorff, with Germany becoming, in effect, a military dictatorship and “Parliament and ministers reduced to some glorified supplier of men and material,” as Geoffrey Wawro has put it.
With Germany’s defeat in World War i, the old Junker-dominated Prussia had essentially come to an end. The Hitler years completed the process. Though still existing on the map, Prussia was now just a part of the Third Reich. But the Third Reich certainly milked the Prussian record for all it was worth — invoking, in Herman Goering’s phrase, the “eternal spirit of Prussiandom.” Thus Hitler, when he was appointed chancellor in 1933, went to Potsdam to commune with the spirit of Frederick the Great (a Joseph Goebbels production). But the communing was highly selective. Hitler had no use for the more enlightened aspects of Frederick’s reign. And, unlike both Frederick and Bismarck, Hitler was the essence of the reckless gambler.
As for the attitude of the old Prussian elite, writes Clark, “the gap between noble circles and the National Socialist movement was narrower than has often been supposed.” Members of the circle around von Papen, who secured Hitler’s installation as chancellor, thought they could manage Hitler “as if he were a part time gardener or a passing minstrel,” in Clark’s happy phrase. And as his figures demonstrate, the noble families of Prussia joined the Nazi party in great numbers. The Schwerin family counted 52 members; the Schulenburg, 41, of whom 17 were very early and eager members. The nobility saw party membership as a way of clinging to its privileges and thought eastward expansion a capital idea.
It is also true that the German resistance, tiny as it was, included some noble Prussian names. Clark quotes Henning von Trescow, one of the military conspirators against Hitler, appealing to that earlier strand of resistance: “True Prussiandom can never be separated from the concept of freedom.” Without it, “there is only spiritless soldiery and narrow bigotry.” (Interestingly, Clark notes, with the attempt on Hitler’s life in 1944, Russian war propaganda took up this theme, while the Western allies ignored it.)
In the final days of defeat, Hitler, holed up in his bunker, sought comfort in Prussian history and tried to draw strength from a portrait of Frederick the Great. When the news of Roosevelt’s death reached him, he was overcome with joy, seeing it as a great turning point — history repeating itself — as when Czarina Elizabeth died during the Seven Years War in 1762. But this was just a chimera in a madman’s brain.
After World War II, the region around the city of Konigsberg in East Prussia fell to the Soviets, who razed it, while the western part — Pomerania and Silesia — became Polish. All that is left of Prussia today is the land of Brandenburg.