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September 21, 2007

We need Prussia even if the Germans don't - argues Brendan Simms

Posted by Brendan Simms

Even if the Germans don't need Prussia, the rest of us most certainly do. Or so argues Brendan Simms, Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge.

In 1947, the Allied Control Council in Germany formally decreed the dissolution of Prussia. In the course of the next forty years or so, however, it was repeatedly exhumed by historians determined to ram a stake through the heart of a monster they blamed for everything that had gone wrong since 1933, and indeed well before that. On their reading, Prussia was responsible for the endemic militarism which had disfigured German history in the first half of the twentieth century, much of the anti-Semitism of the Second and Third Reichs, and the failure to come to grips with liberal modernity more generally.

Even Prussia's astonishing socio-economic progress throughout the nineteenth-century was held against it, because the disparity between industrial growth and political stagnation constituted a Prusso-German "special path" - Sonderweg - which differentiated it from happier British and French climes. If German history, as A. J. P. Taylor argued so seductively, was a series of turning points at which history failed to turn, then that was primarily the fault of Prussia.

Since then, Prussia has experienced a slow but surprising rebirth. It started in the 1980s, when the Soviet satellite "German Democratic Republic", was eager to establish its own authentic credentials as the heir to the Prussian virtues of hard work, loyalty and incorruptibility. The statue of Frederick the Great, which had been hurriedly removed at the end of the war, was restored to its former glory in Berlin's main thoroughfare of "Unter den Linden". In the west, the Federal Republic of Germany also tried to appropriate the Prussian heritage for itself. A memorable exhibition in the former capital scandalised left-liberal opinion with its emphasis on the colourful martial traditions of a past they had thought safely buried. "Prussia", as one prominent historian remarked appalled, "is chic again".

Just how soon what was left of Prussia - much of it had passed to Poland and the Soviet Union after the end of the Second World War - would be re-united with "the West" in 1989-1990, was to surprise everybody. Now, nearly twenty years after those epoch-making transformations, it is possible to review the position of Prussia in the new Germany.

The visitor to Potsdam, just outside Berlin, the traditional residence of the Prussian Kings, will be struck by a paradox. On the one hand, much of the town - which had been badly damaged by Anglo-American bombing in the war, and then by the hostility of the new communist masters in the first decades after 1945 - has been handsomely rebuilt since 1990. The famous palace at Sanssouci has been given a lift, the charming "Dutch Quarter" is flourishing, and there are well-coordinated campaigns to rebuild the remaining gaps in the old street plan, such as the Stadtschloss.

An articulate local initiative is even pushing hard for the reconstruction of the old Garrison Church. This is in many ways the last taboo, for it was in that very place that the infamous "Day of Potsdam" took place in 1933, when the old Prussian elites and the Lutheran church celebrated the opening of the Reichstag and Hitler's accession to power, seemingly accepting into the pantheon of Prussian traditions.

In other ways, however, the Prussian heritage is fizzling at best. The Military Historical Research Institute, which was relocated from the western city of Freiburg with great fanfare after unification has been shorn of the archive on which much of its work is based. The byzantine mechanisms of German federalism - which Prussia never eradicated even at its zenith - ensured that while the Institute, which was under the Ministry of Defence, could move to Potsdam, the archive, which was under the Ministry of the Interior, stayed in Baden-Wuerttemberg, whence the then minister of the Interior - Wolfgang Schaueble - hailed!

Potsdam, and indeed the country as a whole, boasts no specifically dedicated museum of Prussia, because nobody can agree whose responsibility it is to create one. There is only a rather muted "Haus der Brandenburgisch-Preussischen Geschichte", which is crammed into one very large room in the former royal carriage stables. It contains a robust but brief account of Prussia's turbulent past, which balances the stirring military heritage with a critical and often moving account of the fate of Prussian Jews under National Socialism. The cloven hoof is only manifest at the end, when there is a short and completely anodyne gallop through the communist dictatorship of Soviet occupation - nothing on mass rapes and camps - followed by the German Democratic Republic. Perhaps it is no accident that some thirty-percent of Potsdam city council belong to the successor party of the communists.

Two events epitomise the current ambiguity on Prussia. On the one hand, there is the resonance of the splendid new work of the Cambridge historian Christopher Clark, - Iron Kingdom - which has brought a much-needed nuance and critical sympathy to the study of Prussia It is being celebrated not only by conservatives, but by the left-liberal weekly Der Spiegel. The author has even been summoned to advise the President on historical matters, a rare distinction for an academic, and almost unheard of for a foreigner. On the other hand, some of the most resonant anniversaries in Prussian history, have passed unnoticed, especially the start of the Seven Years War two-hundred and fifty years ago in 1756-1757.

This is a shame because the outbreak of that conflict has some interesting and possibly illuminating parallels with the present day. It famously began with the invasion of Saxony by Frederick the Great in order to pre-empt the looming coalition of Austria, Russia, France and several German princes against him. So convinced was he of Saxony's aggressive intent, that he ransacked the archives in Dresden in vain for evidence. The efforts of the Iraq Study Group more recently provide an eerie echo. Frederick's bold move later prompted Henry Kissinger, mindful of the events of 1967 in the middle east, to compare - approvingly - the embattled Prussia with the beleaguered state of Israel. It was also a move which reminds us that the controversial concept of pre-emption has a long pedigree in old Europe and is not simply an invention of a White House clique.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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Should Belgium break up, then Germany would not only recognise Flemish independence, but would also press a claim to the Eastern Cantons of Wallonia (Wallonia’s independence having been recognised by France), and thus set the precedent of pressing claims to those former parts of the Kingdom of Prussia ceded under the Treaty of Versailles.

Nobody disagrees that this would happen, but a common sense of Prussianness across all areas forming part of that Kingdom during its 1871-1918 heyday would be no bad thing at all, but rather a significant force for peace and stability across Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark, Poland and Russia.

The best “Prussian values” are not just noble in themselves, but informed the first Welfare State, both they and it being significant forces for unity between Teutons and Slavs, and between Catholic and Protestant parts of Europe. An insistent and concerted witness to this whole heritage (which notably spawned the attempt to assassinate Hitler) on the part of provinces, municipalities and communities could only be to the benefit of Europe, and the world, as a whole.

Posted by: David Lindsay at September 24, 2007 11:52 AM
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