Last summer the London Times, Le Monde, even The Wall Street Journal, devoted articles to the “reawakening of Prussia.” The subject was discussed in every German newspaper from Munich to Hamburg, from Cologne to Berlin. Three hundred recently published books on Prussia were listed in the catalogue of a well-known German book dealer, and the number grows.1 The center of all this interest in Prussia was a number of remarkable exhibitions in West Berlin which opened on August 15 and closed at the end of the year. The controversy over the Prussian tradition aroused by these exhibitions will no doubt continue for some time.

In Berlin thirty-five years ago, on February 25, 1947, the commanders of American, British, French, and Russian forces occupying defeated Germany issued Occupation Law 46 which said, “The state of Prussia, which has always been the cradle of militarism and reaction, has ceased to exist.” What has brought about this interest in a state that was presumed dead? Were the exhibitions in Berlin an obituary intended to confirm the death of Prussia or were they meant to lift the harsh condemnation of Prussia’s role in Europe’s history and to appeal for a fairer judgment? Were they intended to suggest that Prussia is still alive? For many visitors to the exhibitions the hope to learn more about attitudes in Germany today probably outweighed their curiosity about the Prussian past.


For me, and for many others, the exhibitions proved to be fascinating, but for unexpected reasons. What made a visit worthwhile was more the way they were organized than their political content and intentions. We are used to exhibitions of art works, of furniture and handicrafts, of developments in science and technology, but exhibitions that aim at nothing less than the presentation of an era face many intellectual and practical obstacles. Only a few of the exhibitions organized by the Council of Europe since the Second World War—for example the “Age of the Medici in Florence and Tuscany,” held in Florence last spring—have tried to cover so much. But the Prussian exhibitions in Berlin were considerably more adventurous in their attempt to bring the past to life.

“Exhibitions,” not “exhibition,” because historical Prussia was displayed in seven shows. Some of them were small, devoted to details and curiosities like photographs of military uniforms or portrait drawings from the middle of the last century, and organized in the traditional manner. The quintessence of the entire undertaking, however, was contained in three exhibitions—“Prussia: Attempt at a Balance” (held in the Gropius House, the former Museum of Handicrafts, which stands next to the Berlin Wall), “Berlin 1789-1848,” and “Le Musée Sentimental de Prusse.” In these exhibitions the visitor was struck less by what he saw than by how it was presented.

A comparison with the Museum of German History in East Berlin suggests the originality of the Prussian exhibits. The East Berlin museum contains, not surprisingly, a large section on the German workers’ movement including socialist newspapers and literature, portraits of leaders of the Social Democratic Party, photographs of early celebrations of the first of May. What one saw in West Berlin was incomparably more impressive. Aside from similar relics, there was a continuous thirty-minute film composed of old photographs and film clips showing workers’ demonstrations on May Day, workers clashing with the police, Social Democratic leaders speaking at workers’ rallies, socialist outings and picnics. We saw the grim streets of workers’ quarters and the airless rooms in which they lived, the misery of unemployment and old age, women and children working in factories and mines.

Between the various episodes from the lives of the workers three contemporary actors dressed in workers’ clothing were filmed standing on a “typical” street corner of a workers’ quarter, singing revolutionary songs. The words, the changing rhythms, the staccato tempo of these songs conveyed a vivid impression of a movement on the march. A march that was temporarily halted, as the exhibition showed, when Bismarck banned the Social Democratic Party while hoping to reconcile the workers through social insurance programs—covering health, accidents, and old age—that became models for other industrial states. As soon as Bismarck’s antisocialist laws were lifted, the Social Democratic Party began to advance once again; by the beginning of the First World War it had become the strongest party in the Reichstag and it remained so throughout the years of the Weimar Republic. In Prussia the prime minister was always a Social Democrat until Chancellor von Papen ousted the Prussian government by force in 1932.

The predominantly agrarian society of Prussia, before the rapid industrialization during the second half of the nineteenth century, also received careful treatment. The Prussian landed aristocrat—the Junker—has frequently been characterized as the embodiment of Prussia, and several rooms were devoted to his way of life, his relationship to the Hohenzollern rulers and to the peasants on his estate. The interior of a “typical” peasant’s house with its multi-purpose, simple wooden furniture was tellingly juxtaposed with the dining room of a “typical” Junker with its highly polished table set with Meissen dishes. But perhaps even more interesting and successful was the use of archival material. Taken together, the grants, charters, tax records, and other documents on display showed the Junker as “king of his estate.” Scholarly analyses of these materials in maps, charts, and statistical tables gave a picture of the Junker estates and their buildings and the distribution of land, crops, and income. They also gave a clear sense of the services, obligations, and taxes owed the Junker by the peasants.


In return for receiving full jurisdiction over his estates and over every soul living on them, the Junker owed to the Hohenzollern rulers service as an officer in the army. This created a strong and clearly defined bond, unlike the insecurity of court service in other countries where the noble was dependent on the moods and whims of a monarch. The Hohenzollern rulers were above all commanders of their armies, as they demonstrated by wearing military uniforms in everyday life, and the need of the Hohenzollerns for an officer class ensured the independence of the Junker on his estates. One got a strong impression of the bond between king, nobility, and army by seeing the stiff regimental portraits, the plans of barracks, and the pictures of the Spartan rooms in the military schools in which the young nobles were educated. The “Prussian militarism” that was crucial in the unification of Germany in the nineteenth century here became visible as a way of life.

The men and events that are familiar from textbooks of Prussian history—the Great Elector, Frederick the Great, Bismarck, the Era of Reform following the Napoleonic Wars—were not neglected. Portraits of these “heroes”—not only in paintings but in popular woodcuts and lithographs—as well as patriotic poems and pictures of battles and military marches documented this official version of history. Nevertheless, the focus was less on what the Hohenzollern rulers and their ministers and generals did than on how people lived in the various periods of Prussian history. In order to illustrate the industrialization of Prussia in the nineteenth century, the exhibition displayed views of factories, their account books, steam engines, and pictures of business leaders and their families. Much of the material comes from archives of the famous Borsig machine and locomotive works. An 1830 lithograph shows a factory building not much larger than a big auto repair shop today. By 1850 the sky is filled with smoke from no fewer than ten large chimneys. Ten years later we see the son of the founder—in a tent, surrounded by elegantly dressed ladies—christening his one thousandth locomotive “Borussia.”

Trudging through these often very similar exhibits became rather tiring; but it is amazing that so much could still be found after the destruction of the Second World War. One of the happiest finds was “The Emperor’s Panorama”—a precursor of the moving picture, and an early attempt to satisfy people’s curiosity about the private lives of their rulers. Seated on the circumference of a large drumlike construction mounted with twenty-five individual stereoscopes one could view in stereographic fidelity scenes from the daily life of William II around the turn of the century—in his hunting lodges as a huntsman, on the royal yacht as a sailor, on the parade ground reviewing a march of paunchy veterans in top hats, and also with his dogs, his empress, and his children. Each scene lasted about thirty seconds, then with a rumble and a click the drum rotated clockwise, bringing a new slide into one’s stereoscope. The effect is remarkably realistic; one could almost feel the brisk winds that visibly discomfited William II on his first visit to Helgoland.

In contrast to this imperial high life a wonderfully conceived display was devoted to Prussian exiles after 1849. Entering a bare room, one saw pine boxes the size of steamer trunks, each piled with books. The boxes displayed the names and photographs of the intellectuals and democrats who wrote these works before or after they fled Prussia—including Engels, Heine, Marx, Schurz.

Another group of “lost” Prussians did not get such imaginative treatment: a small room contained one cenotaph commemorating the five to six million murdered in concentration camps and another the more than fifty million dead in two world wars. Around the room were life-sized photographs of the officers, some of them of Prussian origin, who participated in the July 20, 1944, attempt on Hitler’s life. A sign invited the visitor to look out the window (toward the Wall and East Berlin) and see the half-filled bomb crater on which the headquarters of the Gestapo once stood.


The Prussian generals and their tradition were frequently attacked by Hitler after the assassination plot of 1944. He vilified them as being responsible for all that went wrong on the battlefields, as too cool and rational and therefore lacking in the adventurous courage that he himself embodied and that was necessary to win the war. This was one aspect of the relations between Prussia and the Nazis. But the exhibition also displayed Nazi propaganda posters from the 1920s promising that Prussia would be given new life and that Hitler would continue the work of Frederick the Great and Bismarck. The generals, happy to find a political leader who would give them free rein in rearming Germany, looked favorably upon Hitler’s rise and were silent about the crimes of the Nazis after they took power. About this silence, the exhibitions had little to say.

A small exhibition devoted entirely to the Prussian Jews was to be found in the new State Library, Scharoun’s masterwork, one of the most admirable modern buildings in Berlin. But the exhibition itself was painful, not only because of its unbearably grim subject. The exhibition tried to give roughly equal emphasis both to the sufferings and hardships of Jews in Prussia for centuries and to their importance in modern German cultural life. These somewhat contradictory themes gave the exhibition an apologetic tone. The insecurity and tenseness which still permeate every discussion of the Jews in Germany were all too evident here.

The more traditional of the main exhibitions, on the limited theme “Berlin 1789-1848,” was unusually attractive and instructive. It displayed the life of Berlin before it had become the spreading industrial city of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries but when, after Prussia’s triumph over Napoleon in 1815, it was transformed into the cosmopolitan capital of an enlarged state. Plans, drawings, and documents showed us how Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Prussia’s most famous architect (to whom a special exhibition was devoted in East Berlin), built in a purified and functional neoclassical style the Museum, the Royal Theater, the guard room at the city gates, as well as churches and private palaces. Painters, particularly from the Romantic school, received commissions and grants for study in Rome. Writers such as Heine and E. T. A. Hoffmann came to Berlin, and some of Germany’s most important publishing houses were set up there. The newly founded university was so richly endowed that it attracted first-rate scholars from all over Germany.

In the exhibition the paintings of such contemporary artists as Franz Krüger and Kaspar David Friedrich, as well as many other pictures and prints, were shown along with furniture and decor of the time. The greatest attention was given to the “learned Berlin,” with portraits of almost all the professors and pictures of student festivals and meetings. A little-known drawing showed Karl Marx as a student in 1836, clean-shaven, intense, and arrogant, clearly someone who felt himself destined to lead others. A blown-up drawing of Hegel lecturing allowed us to imagine Kierkegaard and Feuerbach as they sat listening with awe to the great man.

The third of the large exhibitions, held in the Berlin Museum, an elegant restored eighteenth-century palace near the Wall, was called “Le Musée Sentimental de Prusse.” “Sentimental” is used here in a broad sense—as an expression of feeling, emotion, attachment—and the objects displayed were mostly things with emotional value: baubles, curiosities, souvenirs of some thing, some place—tangible reminders of someone’s feeling. These “derelicta” of previous generations remind us that we are usually appalled by the tastes of our ancestors—until the objects familiar to them have become so rare that they acquire financial value. It was almost as if the whole of Prussian history (1701-1918) had been filmed, and then the machinery for projection had broken down and one was left only with the “stills”—the relics of a time past.

Since emotions can’t easily be categorized, the exhibition began alphabetically with “Adler” (eagle), the Prussian emblem, and ended with “Zoo.” Cushions embroidered with the Prussian eagle and with the motto “Pray and Work for King and Fatherland” were set alongside tankards, soup tureens, telephones ornamented with miniature eagles. Under “F” was to be found the crutch of Frederick the Great, the symbol of Prussian discipline, and under “Erotik” a silver beer flask in the shape of a penis, large and erect, used for Prussian Herrenabende—stag evenings. On a postcard we saw “Miss Ingeborg, a tattooed lady,” whose bosom displayed William II, the Empress Augusta Victoria, and the Crown Prince. The workers’ movement had its own kitsch—postcards showing four leaders of the Social Democratic Party surrounded by naked putti and a beautiful young lady, discreetly swathed in silk, a sword at her side, holding in one hand a book titled “Knowledge Is Power,” and in the other a beribboned spear on which is written “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

That so much of this tasteless junk survived the devastation of Germany in the Second World War suggests that there was a wide and continuing market for it. One has to conclude that even the tastes of those who were not enthusiastic about the Wilhemine regime were imbued with the Wilhemine spirit.2 The Musée Sentimental made the visitor doubt that there was ever a strong popular culture separate from that of the dominant class during the Wilhemine period—perhaps ever during the twentieth century generally.

In the final room of “Prussia: Attempt at a Balance,” a slide show reminded the visitor of what he or she had seen—although no “balance” was suggested. But were the visitors really interested in a political message? For many elderly people the exhibitions evoked the “good old days”; looking at photographs of towns now situated in East Germany, they pointed out their old schools and even the streets where they had lived. Many young people seemed to be looking at the prewar world of Prussia with the same curiosity and detachment they would bring to the excavations in Ostia or on the Agora. But what of those who were aware of the immense force of Prussian power in the past and wondered how it connected with the present? Why did the organizers of these magnificently staged exhibitions avoid any answers, implied or direct, to the question whether Prussia was to be buried or resurrected?


That these questions cannot clearly be answered seemed one of the main lessons of the exhibitions. The image of Prussia has been shaped by the Prussian myth rather than by historical facts. The Prussian myth has a Janus-face: the decree that ended the existence of Prussia declared Prussia to be the “cradle of militarism and reaction,” and this view reflects the most familiar aspect of the myth. But during the nineteenth century Prussia was also admired for its incorruptible, efficient civil service, for its cultivation of scholarship and science, and for its social policies which placed the welfare of its citizens above the interests of particular social groups or classes.

It is ironical—and instructive—that, as we see from the election posters of the early 1930s, both the Social Democrats and the Nazis appealed to Prussian tradition; the former because they believed that Prussia’s social policies had pointed the way to socialism, the latter because, in their view, military preparedness and nationalistic pride had led Prussia on the way to power and greatness. Although the Berlin exhibitions were certainly not intended to glorify Prussia’s past, the facts on which these contrasting images of Prussia were based had to be presented. Any judgment would have to include qualifications and reservations:

Current German politics must inevitably have affected the planning of these exhibitions. After many years of inveighing against Prussia as the embodiment of class rule and exploitation of the poor, the government of East Germany recently discovered a positive side to the Prussian past. The reforms in agriculture and civil administration by such innovators as Baron Stein after the defeat by Napoleon are now hailed as the first revolution that set the stage for later ones. Schoolbooks laud Prussia’s military successes; biographies discuss the lives of Prussian generals of the reform era, and their statues, removed after the Second World War, are now reappearing in the squares of East Berlin. Last year Rauch’s equestrian monument of Frederick the Great, which had been hidden away since 1945, was returned to its prominent place between the Opera and the University, at the head of Unter den Linden where it had stood for more than a century.

This policy of the East German government may originally have been little more than an attempt to provide a historical background to the artificial political system imposed by the Soviet Union and the German Communist Party. The government has probably found it useful to stress the continuity between the discipline of Prussia under the Hohenzollerns and the restrictions imposed on the citizens of the DDR today. But the DDR government, by its claim to be the successor of Prussia, also wants to stress that the qualities that made the German nation formidable have continued to thrive in East Germany and that the German future is thus bound up with the existence and the policy of the First German Socialist State.

The exhibitions in Berlin were, to some extent, aimed to counter such contentions; they were intended to show that the legacy of Prussia is not a monopoly of the DDR but belongs quite as much to West Germany. But by its claim for a share in this legacy, West Germany conceded it has some value. Although not everything about Prussia needs to be admired, and perhaps not much can be approved, the Prussian heritage cannot be wholly condemned or rejected. Ambiguity is unavoidable.

If the exhibitions could not issue a clear message, would it not have been better not to have embarked on this enterprise? It seems questionable that the rejection of the East German claims outweighs the dangers inherent in rousing the ghost of Prussia. Yet the present interest in the past derives from a new cultural situation that is broader than the competition between East and West.

Although for centuries history has been taught as part of moral philosophy, judging is not its only, not even its primary, task. History is also a mirror in which we see ourselves; from a search into the past emerges a feeling of national identity. Although this search for national identity has particular significance in the divided Germany of today, it is going on all over Europe, East and West. In the years following the Second World War, control over Europe was the chief issue in the struggle between the superpowers. The Western alliance was based on the need to defend a common ideology and the Eastern European nations claimed, at least, to share a common ideological position against the West. But now other parts of the world have become central to this conflict and different political conceptions have been emerging not only within the Western bloc but within the East as well.

Power politics and power economics have become paramount in forming alliances and groupings among states. The European countries are reconsidering their positions and their possibilities within the changing constellation of world politics. To establish what they once were is part of the effort to determine what they are now. The exhibitions on Prussia not only expressed attitudes current in West Germany; they are also part of the shift in political and intellectual premises now taking place throughout Europe.

This Issue

March 18, 1982