Christopher Clark begins his enthralling, shrewd, and sparkling narrative at the end, with one of the two things most people know about Prussia: that it no longer exists. In February 1947 the Allied powers issued a formal decree abolishing the Prussian state, in the aftermath of the calamitous events provoked by the Third Reich, a Germany in which Prussia had made up by far the largest territory. Not just the area around the capital, Berlin, but almost the whole of the plain from the Rhine across to the Baltic Sea, with outlying regions south to the river Main and cities such as Frankfurt and Cologne: all belonged to Prussia. Whereas the states of western, northern, and southern Europe enjoyed a more stable and continuous evolution, Prussia was by no means the only large historic polity in the center of the continent to be totally expunged over recent centuries. In fact that fate successively befell all four of them: the Holy Roman Empire, Poland, the Habsburg monarchy, and lastly Prussia, whose history, as we shall see, was closely entwined with that of the other three.
The reason for the decision to dissolve Prussia—and the other thing that most of us think we know about it—lay in its association with the militaristic tendencies which had, in the eyes of the outside world, at least, launched Germany into two world wars. Clark shows us how this association developed from the unlikely, centuries-long expansion of Brandenburg—the modest principality centered on Berlin—first eastward into the territory originally called Prussia and then in other directions.
At Clark’s starting date, in 1600, the Hohenzollern rulers of Brandenburg derived their status entirely from their role within the Holy Roman Empire—the “old” or “First Reich”—as one of the seven electoral princes who chose the emperor and dominated local politics. The Holy Roman Empire was not a colonizing entity in the modern sense of “empire” but rather a patchwork of largely autonomous territories, loosely affiliated with the emperor’s court. Since the wealthy Habsburg dynasty of Austria occupied a leading position among the rulers of the Empire—the emperor himself, since the late Middle Ages, was almost invariably a Habsburg—the Hohenzollerns’ dependence on the Habsburg emperors for prestige and power left them in a markedly inferior position relative to Austria.
That began to change during the seventeenth century, beginning with the reign of the Hohenzollern Frederick William, the so-called “Great Elector” of Brandenburg, and continuing under his grandson of the same name. By imposing stiff excise taxes and a cantonal system of recruiting soldiers, they formed the basis for a powerful independent army. The Great Elector and his successors tended also (though Clark is careful to qualify the familiar generalization) to draw their modestly endowed nobles, the “Junkers,” into military service, and thus a subordinate place within the state, in return for allowing them to retain their provincial privileges. Brandenburg’s claim to remote Ducal Prussia (later East Prussia), a principality on …