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 the Baltic Sea more than three hundred miles from Berlin, was solidified by 1657 with a series of military victories and diplomatic alliances. (The territories between Brandenburg and Ducal Prussia, including the Baltic port city of Danzig, were gradually brought under Hohenzollern rule during the next century, partly through military conquest and largely as a result of the Polish partitions of 1772–1795.) Significantly, when the Hohenzollern dynasty acquired a royal title, in 1701, it was attached not to Brandenburg, which lay within the Holy Roman Empire, but to East Prussia, which lay outside it.

In the eighteenth century came King Frederick II of Prussia (1712–1786), and his great gamble, in 1740, to take over Silesia, a province straddling the Oder River to the south of Brandenburg. It was a deliberately provocative and lucrative land-grab by the young Prussian monarch of territory that had been under the control of the Habsburg emperors themselves. The move involved Frederick’s domains in decades of warfare and some desperately tight corners, but it excited a new patriotic enthusiasm for the embattled king at home and beyond. Frederick—“the Great”—lived on after his death in image and anecdote, especially as a military man. The combination of nationalist sentiment with militarist enthusiasm became more potent nearly thirty years after Frederick’s death, when, following a series of inglorious reverses against Napoleon, Prussian troops finally led the liberation of the German states from the French. The soldiers included not only members of the regular army, identified in an order of 1814 as the “principal school for training the whole nation for war,” but also volunteers, who were, as Clark points out, drawn particularly from the ranks of professionals, artisans, and Jews.

From these years of struggle and triumph finally emerged a shared identity, part-Prussian, part-German, rooted in martial values. Important to this new culture were military minds, whether theorists like Clausewitz or those able to deliver results in the field, notably the generals Helmut von Moltke and Albrecht von Roon, who assured victory over Austria in 1866 with their deployment of the Zündnadelgewehr, or needle-gun. In 1871, with France now also humbled in the Franco-Prussian War, the constitution of the second German Empire stipulated that the “whole Prussian military code [be]… introduced throughout the Reich without delay.” The prestige of the army certainly inspired deference at home, even to the point of farce. Clark recounts with relish the famous episode in 1906 when an unemployed petty criminal donned a captain’s uniform, commandeered a troop of guardsmen, and marched them to the Berlin suburb of Köpenick, where he took the mayor prisoner and helped himself to the municipal revenue chest.


It was the army’s political manager, Otto von Bismarck, a man with “deep respect for…the absolutist state,” who secured the position of his homeland as a bulwark of authoritarian values in the newly unified Germany. Prussia sustained until 1918 a restricted three-class franchise which allowed conservative landed interests to exercise disproportionate sway in Germany as a whole, even though the electorate was far broader in the non-Prussian states. Altogether Prussia dominated the rest of Germany, containing over 60 percent of its population and area; and Prussia’s government overshadowed the ministries of the young German Empire. For example, and crucially, no separate German ministry of war was ever created. Bismarck employed the strong-arm methods of a “culture war” (Kulturkampf) against Roman Catholics in an attempt to exorcise the specter of an alien, cosmopolitan presence at odds with the Protestant complexion of the new Prussian-centered state.

After 1890 the leading role in that state passed to Emperor William II, a “media monarch” who projected an immaculate image of military power and ceremonial elegance and still ran the army as much as he could like a private fiefdom. On the day of mobilization in 1914, a nineteenth-century Prussian statute came into effect which placed most of Germany under the near-dictatorial authority of twenty-four commanding generals. After the outbreak of war, Prussian discipline was rapidly imposed throughout Germany, both behind the lines and at the front, where the Junkers Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff exercised great, unchallenged, and badly used power.

Clark describes how these “Prussian values,” as Hitler and his henchmen imagined them, survived the collapse of 1918 in the banefully undemocratic ranks of nobles, pastors, and administrators, and were revived by the Nazis, who reserved a special place of honor for Frederick the Great. Even though the Nazi version of history, in Clark’s apt words, was simply “a glittering fetish assembled from fragments of a legendary past…, a talismanic adornment to the pretensions of the regime,” its glorification of military might helped accomplish Prussia’s final nemesis.

This relentless and somber emphasis on Prussia’s militarist tradition gave rise to the earlier historiography of Prussia in English—small wonder there has been so little of it.1 But blood and iron form merely part of the Prussian past. Much else was decisive, and Clark’s account does full justice to that too. He stresses the personal, dynastic basis of the Hohenzollerns’ rule and the loose, even haphazard congeries of provinces over which they came to preside. The cultural significance of their assumption of kingship in Prussia after 1701 at last receives sophisticated treatment in Iron Kingdom (and so does their failure to establish any continuing rituals of coronation after the grandiose initial ceremony at Königsberg).

The first king, Frederick I, cut an unmilitary figure; the most successful expansionist was the lackluster and indolent Frederick William II, into whose hands fell large chunks of a crumbling Poland in the 1790s. By that time Prussia had become celebrated for its orderly and increasingly even-handed administrative and judicial system, thanks above all to the “inspired institution-builder” Frederick William I. It also fostered sturdy urban values that were more resistant to imposed state and military control—as Clark demonstrates—than is often supposed. Notions of citizenship, particularly as enunciated in the famous Town Ordinance (Städteordnung) of 1808, reinforced solid municipal and provincial autonomy, and secured a growing respect for property rather than birth, and thus roles for prosperous members of the bourgeoisie in local and national politics.

Another feature of Prussian rule was its tolerance of religious diversity. This had begun with the dynasty’s decision to forsake the engrained Lutheran allegiance of Brandenburg for the Calvinist faith; and it continued with the state’s welcoming attitude toward the undoctrinaire Pietist movement, which lay somewhere between the two. Pietist influence contributed mightily to the Prussian ethos of state service, and it helped the cause of other minorities, including the Jews, even if attitudes toward the latter (and Clark brings to bear much expert knowledge here2 ) were underpinned by Protestant missionary activity and expectations of conversion.


For the nineteenth century Clark gives as much attention to religion as to the army (and after all, Prussian troops enjoyed little European reputation over most of the period between 1786 and 1866). Moreover, he does not simply highlight in conventional fashion the stages of the political contest with Catholics that culminated in the Kulturkampf. He tells us more about the Protestant revival, usually neglected by historians, which evolved in its own uneasy relation to Prussia’s rulers, who pressed Lutheran and Calvinist churches into a reluctant union under their aegis. And he gives respectful consideration to other kinds of minority religious persuasions as well: the “hardy weeds that shot up ceaselessly between the paving stones of official religion.”

From its early universities—regenerated by the Pietists early in the eighteenth century—to the metropolitan avant-garde of Wilhelmine and Weimar Berlin, Prussia could boast cultural and intellectual achievements that had little to do with mastery of the battlefield. These rested, in turn, on a fine schooling system: by the 1840s over 80 percent of children between six and fourteen were enrolled in formal education. Clark confirms the importance of schoolmasters for the triumph over Austria in 1866 (saying less of the contribution of the railways to Prussia’s decisive victory at Königgrätz). Between 1862 and 1864, immediately before the war, the Prussians subjected their infantrymen to rigorous marksmanship training which required them to estimate distances and keep track of their progress in a log. Without such mathematical competency and literacy, Clark suggests, rank-and-fire fumbling would have neutralized Prussia’s technological advantages on the battlefield.

Particularly important in this alternate history of Prussia were the enlightened debates and reform projects overseen by Frederick II, who ruled between 1740 and 1786. These policies were carried out in good measure by state functionaries, and with the active involvement of Jews, though much official suspicion of them remained, not least on the part of Frederick II himself. The King created a modish, irreverent, and bawdy court, alongside his well-known correspondence with Voltaire and a real passion for the flute: Clark adds the bucolic touch (and perhaps it is just one of those anecdotes) that “even during campaigns, his tuneful warbling could be heard at evening across the Prussian encampments.”

The philosophy of Enlightenment, as molded by Immanuel Kant in Königsberg and by his contemporaries, directly inspired the brilliant generation that undertook both practical and theoretical renewal after 1800. Among them were Baron Karl vom Stein, a civil servant who led the movement to create specialized government ministries and abolish feudal regulations; Wilhelm von Humboldt, who founded the first standardized system of public education in Prussia’s history; and Karl August von Hardenberg, another administrative reformer, who loosened restrictions on trade and labor and as chancellor achieved in 1812 a limited emancipation of the Jews. Hardenberg comes nearest to being a hero in Clark’s story—and is nicely compared, in his rather involuntary espousal of systemic change, to Mikhail Gorbachev. As Clark points out, Hardenberg’s determination to improve “transparency and communication” in affairs of state strengthened a public sphere that was often inclined to thwart or hijack his own plans for limited reform.

By 1848 the pressures for change became inescapable. Prussia’s constitution of that revolutionary year was pioneering in its time, and provided a platform for liberal and progressive forces which often sought to frustrate the army’s purposes. Criticism did not spare the dynasty either, as the biting satires of William II in the press later showed (and the Köpenick episode was widely exploited by opponents of the regime’s military priorities). From the 1870s on, radical and socialist movements grew rapidly, particularly in the industrial zone around Berlin, though they could assert themselves more strongly for the time being in the politics of the wider Reich than in the Prussian state. The post-monarchical system created by the Weimar constitution of 1919 was Germany’s most democratic yet; but also its most unstable, since it inverted the previous order. The national German government was now ostensibly emancipated from the old regime and its army, yet (thanks to the entrenched forces of the army, civil service, and judiciary) still in thrall to much of the conservative, expansionist, authoritarian mentality of the past. Prussia itself, ironically, was ruled by a republican coalition under Social Democratic leadership which explicitly distanced itself from the Hohenzollern version of history. In the end, only by undermining this newfound bastion of the left could Hitler open up a path to power. “The old Prussia,” which Hitler was able to mobilize as a political force, Clark tellingly concludes, finally “destroyed the new.”

The fulcrum of any narrative of Prussian-German history must be the years of the mid-nineteenth century, when—as the balance of Clark’s book confirms—the Prussian story becomes less prominent as the wider German nation takes shape. Was Prussia, as its king famously predicted during the revolution of 1848, “absorbed into Germany”? Or was Germany “Prussianized,” as so many (often hostile) commentators have claimed? Clark puts the matter rather differently: “Germany was not Prussia’s fulfillment…but its undoing.” Yet by that point his reader must be struggling with further questions. Was Prussia a country? Were the Prussians a nation? To these conundrums there is no straightforward answer. The making and unmaking of Prussia should be understood not as some kind of special path, or Sonderweg, which set it apart from the supposedly liberal states of Britain and France, but as part of a distinctively Central European political evolution, with ambiguous forms of statehood and a capacity for destroying as well as remolding existing institutions.

The Prussian state began its life within the Holy Roman Empire. This was the setting of Brandenburg’s original status as an electorate, and then for the grant of the royal Prussian title in 1701, which was the subject of delicate negotiations between Berlin and Vienna. By the mid-eighteenth century and Frederick the Great’s Silesian adventure, Prussia had become a troublemaker, and might be reckoned disloyal to the Empire; yet it still worked within and benefited from it. It did not differ so very much from its local rivals there, and it continued to be obsessed with outmaneuvering them, especially Saxony, the elector-state neighboring Prussia to the south. Prussia won a crown to match the Saxons’ Polish kingship; it seized Silesia to forestall Saxon claims; and at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, it even sought—with partial success—to swallow up the whole of Saxon territory.

The Holy Roman Empire’s abolition in 1806, exactly two hundred years before the appearance of Clark’s book, was not precipitated by Prussia’s strength; indeed, it immediately preceded Prussia’s deepest international humiliation, at the hands of Napoleon. Moreover, Napoleon’s destruction of the old Empire, a break that we now know to have been far more traumatic than was previously portrayed,3 left a vacuum that the German national cause came to occupy, with cataclysmic results in the long run. Prussia’s corruption of Germany has long been a commonplace; but the corruption of Prussia by German nationalism, and its pressures on Prussia to adopt confrontational international positions, were at least as significant.

Prussia’s political identity was thus closely intertwined with those of other states in the loose structures of sovereign rule that characterized Central Europe, some of them inside and some of them outside the borders of what counted as “Germany.” Even in the nineteenth century Prussia was still not a realm apart. By then, however, Prussia’s real analogue was no longer Saxony, Bavaria, or any other of the historic German electorates, but the imperial power of Austria. Prussia and the Habsburg or Austrian monarchy were not just rivals. They were also (and this point is rarely made) locked into a common parallel destiny. Both had grown primarily through the dynastic expansionism characteristic of the region. Both were sprawling, quasi-federal territorial assemblages, with centers of gravity on the eastern fringe of Europe; and that remained the case even after 1815, when Prussia’s final acquisition of most of the rest of the Rhineland, like Austria’s acquisition of northern Italy, introduced potentially destabilizing new elements into existing patterns of authority.

Yet precisely in order to bind these heterogeneous domains together, both Prussia and Austria had developed powerful centralizing and statist tendencies by the mid-eighteenth century. Both initiated reforms in administration, the law, finances, the economy, public health, the church, and education, projects always directed and upheld by the ruling house itself. Thus the Prussian Civil Code of 1794, highly regarded by Clark, was matched by an equally innovative Austrian equivalent seventeen years later. Such reforms pitted both the Prussian and Austrian central governments against local noble elites, who were complaisant only so long as their privileges were respected (and capable of infidelity if not: witness the East Prussians in 1758 or the Bohemians in 1741) and only so long as they could maintain semifeudal control in the countryside. In other words, while the rulers forestalled provincial opposition, their chief subjects resisted the uniformity of metropolitan government. Meanwhile, both the Prussian and Austrian states continued to attract and recruit from the rest of Germany, and from each other, just as they sought to hold sway over it right through the end.

Two profound sets of consequences flowed from these common experiences. First, Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs alike had difficulties with the nature of their sovereignty and its symbols. Clark reveals to us the slipperiness of “Prussia” as a term; at various times and even at the same time it could refer to all the territories ruled by the Hohenzollerns, or just some of them, or others not ruled by them. “Austria” never achieved even that level of currency: no Habsburg, for example, ever wore a specifically Austrian crown. The same ambiguities applied to ethnic identity. Austria, of course, with its Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Croats, Italians, and Romanians, among others, was more “multinational.” Yet the many variegated kinds of Germans within Prussia—besides substantial minorities of Poles and Jews especially—represented a similar degree of diversity.

Moreover, both the Hohenzollern and the Habsburg lands were desperately vulnerable to shifts in the international power system, not least because their territories had so few natural borders. It was partly for this reason that both dynasties wedded themselves, at least from the 1740s, to personal and undivided command over a strong army, which enjoyed high status in the regime and society. As Clark demonstrates so subtly for Prussia, however, this authority was continually undermined by the effects of such heterogeneous ruling structures. Both governments often found themselves riven by factional struggles among advisers from the entire range of their territories and beyond.

The risks to both governments were high once ethnic loyalties of a recognizably modern kind began to appear. Neither Prussia nor Austria could simply register German nationalism: they needed either to dominate it or submit to it. In the post-1815 aftermath of the Holy Roman Empire’s collapse, which they had jointly hastened, the two states coexisted in the German Confederation, and maintained a broad harmony of purpose over most of the next decades. The midcentury contest between the two, as Clark observes, was far more evenly balanced than has often been assumed. And both powers were similarly challenged by the revolutions in 1848, though events also opened up a chasm between them. As domestic disaffection spilled over into a temporarily uncontrollable unification movement, the revolutions showed the extent of the disruption that German nationalism could bring to Prussia. At length, however, it was the Austrian Monarchy that was brought low by Prussia in 1866. As a result, when German unification was finally achieved, five years later, it would be under Prussian, not Austrian, dominance.

Clark writes colorfully that although the Habsburgs could “play masterfully upon the wheezing organ of the Confederation, they would never be able to sound the bright trumpets of German unity.” Yet the two states were soon in partnership again, in the Dual Alliance which prepared the way for their armed cooperation between 1914 and 1918. Moreover, they made strikingly similar attempts to create watertight constitutional arrangements amid the tumultuous happenings between 1866 and 1871, and the strong position of Hungary within the Habsburgs’ revamped Dual Monarchy after 1867 had some resemblance to the position of Prussia in the new Germany.

After the Allied victory in 1918 and the triumph of ideas of national self-determination, the Central European colossus of Austria underwent total destruction, anticipating that of Prussia thirty years later, again in the aftermath of a military cataclysm. The earlier collapse left only disjecta membra of the former Habsburg lands, and the raw material for a new conflict—one orchestrated, of course, by the Austrian arch-German nationalist, Adolf Hitler. In the fullness of its unbridled appetites, the German idea finally demolished both Austria and Prussia.

Besides its Austrian opposite number, Prussia had an abiding antipode in the third of the great Central European realms: Poland. It is the only serious lacuna of Clark’s conception that he leaves out the larger implications of that relationship. Whereas he provides a scrupulous account of the Polish minorities in the lands of the Hohenzollerns and the intensifying maltreatment to which Berlin subjected them from the mid-nineteenth century, his Prussia remains territorially that of conventional Western historiography. The story he does not tell is that Prussia and the Polish Commonwealth evolved in a reciprocal relationship, with the peaks and troughs reversed.

In the fifteenth century, Poland (or more strictly Poland-Lithuania) consolidated itself by subjugating the German colonial settlements in the lands of the Teutonic Order and establishing sovereignty over the whole terrain. A large part of Prussia around Gdanå«sk (Danzig) was fully incorporated into the Commonwealth. The Hohenzollerns remained Poland’s vassals in the rest of Prussia until 1657, when the dynasty’s release from vassalage—a consequence of its newfound military strength and a fortuitous series of diplomatic developments—established the setting for its declaration of royal authority half a century later. Hence the quaint title that the house of Brandenburg was initially forced to adopt, of being kings “in Prussia” rather than “of Prussia” (not all of the province was even theirs).

By the late eighteenth century the boot was on the other foot: “Prussia” came to mean the aggressive and domineering neighbor that swallowed up large parts of Poland in the three partitions between 1772 and 1795 through which the whole country was absorbed by others. In January 1797, a secret article of the final treaty of partition even decreed that “in view of the necessity to abolish everything which could revive the memory of the existence of the Kingdom of Poland,…the name or designation of the Kingdom of Poland…shall remain suppressed as from the present and forever.”4 Even more than the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 or that of the Habsburg Monarchy in 1918, this was an augury for Prussia: exactly 150 years later, it would suffer the same fate.

In the nineteenth century the “Prussian” qualities—orderliness, precision, efficiency, deference, integrity, etc.—were set against the deficiencies of the now dispossessed Poles: preußische Ordnung (Prussian order) supplanted polnische Wirtschaft (Polish [mis]management) as the celebrated virtue of the dominant state. Prussian officials (like their Austrian counterparts) reserved their most experimental reforms for the former Polish territories under their control. In different circumstances these Poles might have become Prussians, that is, patriotic citizens of the Prussian state; but they could not become Germans.

After 1871 they were sufficiently feared by the government that considerations of state security combined with nationalist fervor to increase the persecution of Poles and their culture. Bismarck spoke of the need to “defend our national interests and our language” (!) against the “combined propaganda of Slavs, ultramontanes and reactionaries.” The great German military victory against Russia at the start of World War I, fought over a broad swathe of East Prussia, was deliberately named after the village of Tannenberg to avenge the equally comprehensive Polish victory there over the Germans five hundred years before.5

The resurrection of Poland in 1918, encompassing roughly the same lands and populations (including the large Jewish minority) as the old Commonwealth, was seized upon by Prussia/ Germany as the occasion for fresh military retaliation in 1939, and this unleashed the most merciless of all Europe’s midcentury reckonings. By the end of it, in 1947, Poland had actually (re)annexed a majority of the territory that made up Brandenburg-Prussia on the eve of the creation of the Bismarckian German Empire. Like the Allies after World War II, Germany’s eastern neighbors were loath to preserve the name of Prussia. The Poles have now reverted to terms like Pomerania and Masuria, while the East Prussian territory acquired by the Soviets in 1945 was called the district of Kaliningrad (the former Königsberg), the name it retains to this day. Unsurprisingly, the Polish historiography of Prusy looks markedly different from Clark’s. The first substantial Polish account, published as recently as 1987, is organized around a distinctive chronology: 1657, 1701, 1773, and 1795, the years of de-vassalage, coronation, and partition, are key dates. A comprehensive, multivolume treatment is at last underway.6

Clark’s immensely learned, judicious, and entertaining book provides a definitive general narrative of its subject for our times. Yet Prussia was not merely an Iron Kingdom. What, after all, of the founding people, neither Germans nor Slavs, who gave their name to the terrain, and spoke their own Prussian language there into the seventeenth century, until they became the first total casualties of its historical vicissitudes? Even in the English-speaking world, this notion of “Prussia” was there first: it was “spruce,” a term originally applied (by Chaucer, not least) to the country and its products, before being reduced to a particular kind of softwood originally derived from there.

Still, Clark has brilliantly exposed the deficiencies of both the apostles and detractors of the Hohenzollern kingdom, and finally routed the Prussian school of historiography that remade the past in the image of a subsequent German state and its priorities. More work, of course, remains to be done: West Prussia (the “other Prussia,” as one historian has recently termed it7 ) lived considerably longer under Polish than German rule, and East Prussia remained linked to the non-German world that surrounded it by myriad ties. But Clark’s achievement is substantial. No longer can we believe that a united Germany was the predestined endpoint of Prussia’s historical development. The monarchy that built itself on that Prussian base can finally be seen not as some strange Teutonic aberration, but as an integral and typical product of the distinctive geopolitics of Central Europe.

This Issue

September 27, 2007