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September 01, 2006

A New History of Prussia: The Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 - Christopher Clark

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947
by Christopher Clark
Pp. 784. London: Allen Lane, 2006
Hardback, 30

The core of Germany is Prussia. There is the source of the recurring pestilence.
Or so Churchill declared in Parliament in 1943, repeating a truism of the period; and its reputation was scarcely an envious one. Yet, given its historical importance, it is surprising how few histories of Prussia in English have been attempted. Christopher Clark's wide-ranging, thoughtful and well-written survey is therefore most welcome. He begins with post-medieval Brandenburg-Prussia and ends in 1947 when the representatives of the Allied occupation authorities signed a law which abolished the Prussian state declaring:
The Prussian State, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany, has de facto ceased to exist.

Clark is concerned to chart a middle way, arguing that it is important not to read the history of Prussia from the perspectives of Hitler and World War Two, that Prussia was a European state long before it became a German one, and, indeed, that Germany was not Prussia's fulfilment but its undoing, a point that begs the question whether World War One was not Prussia's fulfilment.

Method is important to Clark's argument, for he provides a narrative that emphasises vulnerability and discontinuities, rather than an immutable passage to power, let alone teleological rise to greatness, and, in doing so, he challenges the way in which the story of the latter was employed by Prussia's rulers as a fundamental but misleading resource.

This use of the past was continued by Hitler, as Clark makes clear, not least with films, from The Old and the Young King to Kolberg, the second of which was totally misleading; as well as with architecture. In practice, however, the Prussian Landtag was dissolved in 1933 after new elections had failed to give the Nazis an absolute majority, the Prussian ministries were gradually merged with their German counterparts, and plans were drawn up to partition Prussia into its constituent provinces.

Any work of this scale and ambition obviously has lacunae. There is for example insufficient attention given to the comparative dimension within Germany, not least the repeated question of why Prussia rose to dominance and not Saxony or Bavaria, each of which on occasion seemed a far better bet.

Nevertheless, the book works and works well offering both narrative and analysis. Key individuals are ably discussed, not only Frederick the Great, who receives considerable attention, and the much travelled and frequently orating Wilhelm II, but also others who were not rulers, for example Moses Mendelssohn. Furthermore, there is due attention to the issues of religion and society alongside those of dynasty, war and foreign policy.

Throughout, the book contains reflections and examples that are of interest. For example, Clark suggests that the role of Queen Luise was the most striking aspect of "monarchical discourse" in the reign of Frederick William III, which began in 1797. He points out that, for the first time in the history of the dynasty, the king was perceived and celebrated not merely as a monarch, but as a husband. This had an artistic counterpart, with the warlordly portraits of earlier reigns replaced by restrained family scenes in which the king was shown relaxing with his numerous family.

More generally, the book contains pertinent illustrations, and the text is also supported by maps. If Clark could be persuaded now to go on to tackle Saxony, a much understudied state, that would be very welcome. In the meanwhile, his treatment of Prussia has much to offer not only to specialists interested in German history but also those seeking an intelligent as well as a good read.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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