Iron Kingdom: Prussia’s Success Foreshadowed Its Demise

In unifying the German lands, Prussia set the stage for its own demise, Christopher Clark shows.

Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (2006)
Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (2006)

In Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, Christopher Clark succeeds marvelously in explaining how a once medieval backwater managed to transform itself into the driving force behind the most powerful empire in Europe — and how its very success foreshadowed its disappearance from the map.

Prussia, in Clark’s telling, largely came about as a result of the (iron?) will of its kings, the Hohenzollerns. Originally a relatively minor aristocratic family from the south of Germany, they came in possession of Brandenburg (now in East Germany) and Prussia (roughly corresponding to Russia’s modern-day Kaliningrad Oblast) and managed to turn these two territories into the most powerful German-speaking state through a combination of flexible diplomacy, military genius and occasional luck.

What helped was a relatively enlightened mentality, imposed from the top down particularly during the reign of Frederick the Great (1740-1786). Prussia boasted one of the most progressive education systems in the world. Its bureaucracy was less encumbered by vested interests than in the other German lands, allowing it push through rational policies that professionalized the armed forces and saw the economy expand. In the early nineteenth century, the nobility was opened up to bourgeois estate holders.

A Prussian nation took longer to forge. Frederick resisted the sort of ethnic arguments that came to inform later thinking on Germanness. “The notion that Brandenburg-Prussia had a ‘national’ mission to unite the German nation under German rule was utterly alien to the Francophone Frederick the Great,” writes Clark.

He did see a leading role for the state which was the one institution all Prussians shared. A vision of the relation between the people and the state developed that would find appeal throughout Germany: Prussians said the state was the expression of the people’s will. It was their commitment to this certain order of things, according to Clark, that inspired what came to be seen as typically Prussian values such as discipline, loyalty, punctuality and self-denial.

The way the Prussian nation was shaping up didn’t agree with Frederick’s more freewheeling ways, though. The mid-nineteenth century saw a back-and-forth between what, for simplicity’s sake, can be described as the conservative and liberal elements in Prussian society. A Romanticist backlash in the 1830s triggered the March Revolt of 1848 which gave way to a reactionary nationalism. Representative bodies were introduced after the 1848 uprising. But government was centralized at the same time with a strong executive at its center that would allow Otto von Bismarck, as chancellor, to impose his will first on Prussia and then on Germany as a whole.

The 1848 settlement had another defect. It “parliamentarized the monarchy without demilitarizing it,” according to Clark.

At the heart of the postrevolutionary settlement lay an avoided decision that would haunt Prussian (and German) politics until the collapse of the Hohenzollern monarchy in 1918.

The king, later emperor, was supposed to command the army which would allow Generals Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg to conduct World War I in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s name with almost no regard to the civilian government.

Before it could come to that, post-1848 Prussia was able to play a much more active role abroad. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, it had “stood on the sidelines of European power politics, steering in the lee of the great powers, avoiding commitments and shying away from conflict.” By 1871, Clark writes, Prussia had “reinvigorated its armed forces, driven Austria out of Germany, destroyed the military might of France, built a new nation state and transformed the European balance of power.”

For centuries, the heart of Europe had been divided into various German-speaking principalities. For the first time, the center was united and strong in the form of a German Empire under Prussian leadership — which owed much to Bismarck’s personal ambition and diplomacy.

But unification had two unforeseen consequences that would ultimately conspire to bring Prussia down.

It introduced the European alliance system that proved so deadly in 1914. Austria, France and Russia could no longer play off smaller German states against each other or count on their neutrality.

Unification on Prussia’s terms also shifted the balance of power in the whole of Germany in its favor. This empowered the East Elbian aristocracy at the expense of the commercial and urban ruling class of the western states and the bourgeois-noble composite elite of the south, both of which tended to be more progressive. The Protestant Junker milieu, writes Clark, “acquired a flavor of intransigence and extremism that set it apart.” It launched a misbegotten Kulturkampf against Catholics and futilely tried to “Germanize” ethnic Poles. Both efforts did more to unite Catholics and Poles against their Prussian overlords.

A German soldier watches an airplane at the Johannisthal Air Field near Berlin, 1910
A German soldier watches an airplane at the Johannisthal Air Field near Berlin, 1910 (DHM/Otto Haeckel)

When the First World War it helped instigate resulted in defeat, the Prussian ruling class was demoralized. Robbed of their king (who fled to the Netherlands) as well as the provinces of Posen and West Prussia (which were given to an independent Poland) many of the Junkers looked to Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism as a way to restore their pride.

Noblemen, especially of the younger generation, drifted away from the personal, flesh-and-blood monarchism of their fathers and forebears toward the diffuse idea of a “leader of the people,” whose charisma and national authority would fill the vacuum created by the departure of the king.

The Nazis appropriated Prussiandom and turned it into “a glittering fetish assembled from fragments of a legendary past,” according to Clark. “It was a manufactured memory, a talismanic adornment to the pretensions of the regime.”

Yet this view of Prussia prevailed. The allies needed no persuading that Nazism was merely the latest manifestation of Prussianism. They bombarded military-insignificant Potsdam in the dying days of Hitler’s regime, destroying the palaces of the former Prussian kings there. Most of old Königsberg was wiped out by British air attacks and Soviet shelling. So was most of Kolberg. Prussian estates were burned to the ground by the advancing Red Army, forcing millions to flee westward. East Prussia, Eastern Pomerania and Silesia were ceded to Poland. In a geographical sense, Prussia was eradicated.

Did it deserve to be? Clark doesn’t hazard a answer but he does provide a powerful antidote to the stereotypical view of Prussia as militaristic and responsible for all Europe’s horrors in the twentieth century.

In hindsight, it may be tempting to a succumb to a Sonderweg interpretation of Prussia’s history and see it inevitably produce Nazism. Clark shows it were key decisions taken along the way by Prussian leaders — from Frederick the Great’s determination to modernize Prussia and keep it independent to Bismarck’s mission to unify the German lands — that played at least as big a role as the longer-term historical processes that shaped society along the Baltic Sea coast and in the forests that ended up east of the Oder-Neisse line.