Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark

When I reflect on what I learned of European history in my secondary school education in the U.S., I can only marvel at the enormous gaps.  For starters, I came away with the sense that a) Europe is comprised of the 'old countries', much older than the United States, and b) it has existed in its present configuration for many centuries.  The fact that the nations we today know as Italy and Germany, for example, are actually younger than the U.S. came as a shock.

One day I was browsing a list of e-books, and I came across this title. It gave me pause. Prussia. What did I know of Prussia? It was a German-speaking region, but where was it, exactly? Who were its key players? Why does its history end in 1947? I had no idea whatever, and that was simply mortifying.  So I downloaded the book.

Browse the shelves in a bookshop, and you can immediately gauge the thickness of each book. You look at the title, and then you notice that the book is thicker than your thumb is long. You ask yourself, do I really want to read about 800 pages of Prussian history?  With an e-book, however, the length is not immediately evident. I was not in fact really keen on 800 pages of Prussian history, but once I started, I was unwilling to set the book aside. In certain sections, I admit, I honed my rusty art of skimming.

The limited impressions of Prussia I had collected were largely negative: overly regimented, militaristic, misogynist. Mr. Clark provided me with the basis for these stereotypes but also enlightened me about the many ways in which Prussia was a pioneer in democratic, efficient and transparent government, education, and human rights.
Being Australian himself, Clark says, he has no personal agenda to either deride or salvage the Prussian reputation, and he does treat the Kingdom even-handedly.

In its earliest days, Prussia, centered around the Electorate of Brandenburg, was an amorphous entity, a far cry from the distinct character it would assume in later centuries.
Metternich famously remarked that Italy was a "geographical expression". The same could not be said of Brandenburg. It was landlocked and without defensible natural borders of any kind. It was a purely political entity, assembled from the lands seized from pagan Slavs during the Middle Ages and settled by immigrants from France, the Netherlands, northern Italy and England, as well as the German lands.
Austria had its Habsburgs, and Prussia its Hohenzollerns. They shared a language and occasionally got on well together but were more often rivals, jockeying for influence within the larger entity, the Holy Roman Empire. The Habsburgs usually came out on top in this particular power struggle.
How did this unpromising territory become the heartland of a powerful European state? The key lies partly in the prudence and ambition of the ruling dynasty. The Hohenzollerns were a clan of south-German magnates on the make... In 1417, Frederick Hohenzollern, Burgrave of the small but wealthy territory of Nuremberg, purchased Brandenburg from its then sovereign, Emperor Sigismund, for 400,000 Hungarian gold guilders. The transaction brought prestige as well as land, for Brandenburg was one of the seven Electorates of the Holy Roman Empire, a patchwork quilt of states and statelets that extended across German Europe. In acquiring his new title, Frederick I, Elector of Brandenburg, entered a political universe that has since vanished utterly from the map of Europe. The "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" was essentially a survival from the medieval world of universal Christian monarchy, mixed sovereignty and corporate privilege. It was not an"empire" in the modern Anglophone sense of a system of rule imposed by one territory upon others, but a loose fabric of constitutional arrangements centred on the imperial court and encompassing over 300 sovereign territorial entities that varied widely in size and legal status.
Presiding over this variegated political landscape was the Holy Roman Emperor. His was an elective office -- each new emperor had to be chosen in concert by the Electors -- so that in theory the post could have been held by a candidate from any eligible dynasty. Yet, from the late Middle Ages until the formal abolition of the Empire in 1806 the choice virtually always fell in practice to the senior male member of the Habsburg family.
It seems that historians are unable to pinpoint a precise trigger for the Thirty Years' War. In its early stages it seems to have been mostly a conflict between Europe's Catholics and Protestants, but as it involved more and more combatants, additional grievances came into play. The devastation, especially in the Germanic countries, was horrific. Clark suggests that the horrors of this war left the Prussians feeling united against their enemies and especially driven to develop a military to defend them from such hostilities in future. 
During the Thirty Years War (1618-48) the German lands became the theatre of a European catastrophe. A confrontation between the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II (r. 1619-37) and Protestant forces within the Holy Roman Empire expanded to involve Denmark, Sweden, Spain, the Dutch Republic and France. Conflicts that were continental in scope played themselves out on the territories of the German states: the struggle between Spain and the breakaway Dutch Republic, a competition among the northern powers for control of the Baltic, and the traditional great-power rivalry between Bourbon France and the Habsburgs. Although there were battles, sieges and military occupations elsewhere, the bulk of the fighting took place in the German lands.
Throughout Prussia's history, as its territory both grew and shrank, the kingdom's alliances shifted often. Perhaps it most solidly aligned its interests with that of the Holy Roman Empire (if not that of Habsburg Austria specifically). 
The Hohenzollern eagle shown on the ensigns of seventeenth-century Brandenburg always wore a shield proudly adorned with the golden sceptre of the Imperial Hereditary Chamberlain, a mark of the Elector's prominent ceremonial standing within the Empire. Frederick William saw the Empire as indispensable to the future well-being of his lands. The interests of the Empire were not, of course, identical with those of the Habsburg Emperor, and the Elector was perfectly aware that it might at times be necessary to defend the institutions of the former against the latter. But the Emperor remained a fixed star in the Brandenburg firmament.
Prussia started as an ill-defined bloc of land with few if any natural resources, came through the Thirty Years' War badly scarred, and still it grew.
At the close of the seventeenth century, Brandenburg-Prussia was the largest German principality after Austria. Its long scatter of territories stretched like an uneven line of stepping-stones from the Rhineland to the eastern Baltic.

Frederick William (1713-1740) held the title of King in Prussia, indicating that the duchy of Prussia had been elevated to a kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire. (In 1772, Frederick II, better known as Frederick the Great, would bear the title King of Prussia.)  Frederick William's ideas of governance struck me as very liberal for his time; he was certainly not the raving autocrat with his ministers that he was with his son. (More on that momentarily.)  He did expect them to work diligently for the people, which Clark terms the birth of the modern bureaucracy, but which I find refreshing. Frederick William also had a charmingly low tolerance for corruption. All in all, I could vote happily for a government like his.
At the apex of the General Directory, Frederick William installed what was known as a "collegial" decision-making structure. Whenever an issue had to be resolved, all the ministers were required to come together at the main table in the relevant department. Along one side sat the ministers, facing them on the other were the privy councillors of the relevant department. At one end of the table there was a chair left empty for the king -- a pro forma observance, since the king scarcely ever attended meetings. The collegial system delivered several advantages: it brought the decision-making process out into the open and thereby prevented (in theory) the empire-building by individual ministers that had been such a prominent feature of the previous reign; it ensured that provincial and personal interests and prejudices were balanced out against each other; it maximized the relevant information available to the decision-makers; most importantly, it encouraged officials to take a holistic view.
On the other hand, the conditions of employment and the general ethos of the General Directory do sound a familiar note from a present-day perspective. The ministers were expected to convene at seven in the morning in summer and eight in winter. They were expected to remain at their desks until the day's work was accounted for. They were required to come into the office on Saturdays in order to check the week's accounts. If they spent more than a certain number of hours at work on any particular day, a warm meal was to be provided at the expense of the administration, but served in two sittings, so that half the ministers could keep working while their colleagues ate. These were the beginnings of that world of supervision, regulation and routine that is common to all modern bureaucracies... 
Service in the General Directory offered fewer opportunities for illicit self-enrichment: a system of concealed supervision and reporting that ran through every tier of the organization ensured -- in theory at least -- that irregularities were immediately notified to the king. Serious offences met with punishments ranging from dismissal to fines and restitutions, to exemplary execution at the place of work. A notorious case was that of the East Prussian War and Domains Councillor von Schlubhut, who was hanged for embezzlement before the main meeting room of the Koenigsberg Chamber.
Here too begins Prussia's significant military history, both in practical terms and in the sense of fondness for military culture.  
When Frederick William came to the throne, the Prussian army numbered 40,000 men. By 1740, when he died, it had increased in size to over 80,000, so that Brandenburg-Prussia boasted a military establishment that seemed to contemporaries quite out of proportion to its population and economic capabilities. The king justified the immense costs involved by arguing that only a well-trained and independently financed fighting force would provide him with the autonomy in international affairs that had been denied to his father and grandfather. Yet there is also a sense in which the army was an end in itself, an intuition reinforced by the fact that Frederick William remained reluctant throughout his reign to deploy his army in support of any foreign-political objective. Frederick William was powerfully attracted to the orderliness of the military; he himself regularly wore the uniform of a Prussian lieutenant or captain from the mid-1720s onward and he could conceive of nothing more pleasing to the eye than the sight of uniformed men moving in ever changing symmetries across a parade square (indeed he flattened a number of royal pleasure gardens in order to convert them for this purpose and tried where possible to work in rooms from which drilling exercises could be viewed). One of the few indulgences in wasteful ostentation he allowed himself was the creation of a regiment of exceptionally tall soldiers (affectionately known as lange Kerls or "tall lads") at Potsdam. Immense sums were squandered on the recruitment from all over Europe of these abnormally tall men, some of whom were partially disabled by their condition and thus physically unfit for real military service.
I spotted one reader review of this book which lamented the paucity of personality profiles, especially in light of the remarkable characters who peopled this history.  I agree, because describing people's quirks  not only makes them more sympathetic but also renders them more memorable. Clark does not stint, however, on the personal life (as much as we know) of Frederick William's son, who would (somewhat amazingly) grow up to become Frederick the Great. The father was a rigid disciplinarian; the son was more inclined to read poetry, play the flute and form an intense friendship with a young military officer who was his tutor. None of these proclivities pleased the Elector.
The cold war that seethed between Frederick William and his own teenage son, the future Frederick the Great, puts all these earlier conflicts in the shade. Never had the struggle between father and son been waged with such emotional and psychological intensity. The roots of the conflict can be traced in part to Frederick William's profoundly authoritarian temperament. Since he himself had always been scrupulously respectful in his dealings with his father, even when he was forced by circumstance to join the opposition party, he was completely unable to understand any form of insubordination from his heir. Coupled with this was a conceptual and emotional inability to detach his own person from the administrative achievements of his reign, so that any failure of deference appeared to place his historical accomplishment, and the very state itself, in jeopardy. It seemed to him that the work he had laboured so hard to complete must collapse if the successor did not share "his belief, his thoughts, his likes and dislikes, in short, if the successor were not his mirror-image". It became clear early in Frederick's life that he would not fulfil these exacting designs. He showed little in the way of soldierly aptitude-- he often fell from his horse and was frightened of shooting. His posture and comportment were languid, his hair messy, he slept late, enjoyed being alone and was often to be found reading novels in the rooms of his mother and sister.
The Habsburgs encouraged the father to marry off the son to one of their princesses. To avoid this fate, young Frederick ran away with his friend, the officer. They didn't get far, and to make his stance perfectly clear, Frederick William required his son to watch the officer's execution. The marriage with the Habsburg princess did go through, but the bridegroom staunchly vowed that he would never consummate the marriage. Given that the marriage remained childless, and the wife turned into an unhappy, bored neurotic, history suggests he made good on this threat. It certainly did nothing to endear the Habsburgs to Frederick, who throughout his reign sought allegiances elsewhere. 
Austria's imperial tutelage over the Brandenburg-Prussian court was thus both a political and a personal reality for Frederick. The crisis of 1730 and its aftermath amplified the prince's distrust of the Austrians and reinforced his cultural and political attachment to France, Vienna's traditional enemy in the west.
As a ruler, Frederick proved astonishingly effective (in my mind, given the trauma of his youth) and less surprisingly, very enlightened.
So visceral was Frederick's need for the company and stimulation of books that he had a mobile "field library" fitted up for use during campaigns. Writing (always in French) was also important, not just as a means of communicating his thoughts to others, but also as a psychological refuge. It was always his aspiration to combine the daring and resilience of the man of action with the critical detachment of the philosophe. His coupling of the two species, encapsulated in the youthful self-description roi philosophe, meant that neither of his roles had an absolute claim over him: he passed as a philosopher among kings and a king among philosophers. ...
The king took his flute-playing seriously. His tutor, the virtuoso flautist and composer Quantz, was paid a salary of 2,000 thalers a year, which placed him on a par with some of the most senior civil servants in the kingdom -- by contrast, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, a composer of infinitely greater historical significance who worked for Frederick as a keyboard player, was paid only a fraction of this sum. Frederick practised and performed on the flute incessantly, with a perfectionism verging on the obsessive. Even during campaigns, his tuneful warbling could be heard at evening across the Prussian encampments. He was also a gifted composer, though his works were competent and graceful rather than brilliant. ...
He was also unusually relaxed on questions of sexual morality. Voltaire's memoirs recall the case of a man who was sentenced to death for engaging in sexual intercourse with a she-donkey. The sentence was personally annulled by Frederick on the grounds that "in his lands one enjoyed freedom of both conscience and penis". Whether or not this story is true (and Voltaire is not always to be trusted on such matters), it conveys an authentic sense of the libertinism that prevailed in Frederick's milieu.
Frederick the Great was the first European ruler to make any effort to limit the use of torture as an interrogation tool -- another facet of his progressive liberality.
Frederick extended this ban into a blanket prohibition, on the grounds that torture was not only "cruel" (grausam) but also unreliable as a means of getting at the truth, since there was always the danger that suspects would implicate themselves in order to avoid further torture.
The death of Frederick the Great in 1768 left a vacuum that proved impossible to fill.
The Frederician system worked well with the indefatigable, far-sighted Frederick at the helm, applying his quick and capacious intellect, not to mention his courage and decisiveness, to the problems that came to his desk. But what if the king were not a genius-statesman? What if he found it difficult to resolve dilemmas? What if he were hesitant and risk-averse? What, in short, if he were an ordinary man? With a monarch like that in the driving seat, how would this system function under pressure? Frederick, we should remember, was the last of a freakish run of abnormally gifted Hohenzollern rulers. Their like would not be seen again in the history of the Hohenzollern dynasty...  "Everything has collapsed into smallness," Count Mirabeau wrote, reflecting on the death of Frederick the Great in 1786.
Rule of Prussia passed to the childless Frederick's nephew, Frederick William II, who was of quite a different character, and was in no way suited to fill his uncle's vacated throne.
The uncle had remained loyal to the values of the high enlightenment, espousing a rigorously sceptical rationalism that seemed old-fashioned by the 1780s. The nephew was a man of his era who took an interest in spiritism, clairvoyance, astrology and other pursuits that would have disgusted his predecessor. The uncle had demonstrated his personal attachment to the ideals of the Enlightenment by joining the Freemasons when he was still crown prince. The nephew, by contrast, joined the Rosicrucians, an esoteric and secretive offshoot of Freemasonry dedicated to mystical and occult pursuits. Frederick the Great had managed, through rigorous economies in all domains of state activity, to leave behind a treasury of 51 million thalers; this staggering sum was squandered by his successor in only eleven years.48 And there were important differences in management styles. Whereas the uncle had constantly controlled and monitored the central executive, imposing his will on secretaries and ministers alike, the nephew was an impulsive, uncertain figure who was easily steered by his advisers.

Meanwhile, Poland declared itself a "free and independent nation", which pleased few Europeans outside of Poland.
In 1788-91, while the Russians were bogged down in a costly war with the Ottoman Empire, King Stanislaw August and a party of Polish reformers had taken the opportunity to press ahead with changes to the political system. The new Polish constitution of 3 May 1791 created, for the first time, a hereditary monarchy and the outlines of a functioning central government. "Our country is saved,"  its authors announced."Our freedoms are assured; we are a free and independent nation; we have shaken off the bonds of slavery and misrule." Neither the Prussians nor the Russians welcomed these developments. The creation of an independent Poland ran against the grain of nearly a century of Russian foreign policy. Frederick William II officially congratulated the Poles on their new constitution, but behind the scenes there was alarm at the prospect of a Polish revival. "I foresee that sooner or later Poland will take West Prussia from us," Hertzberg told a senior Prussian diplomat. "How can we defend our state against a numerous and well-ruled nation?"
So the Russians and Prussians (and a few of their friends) helped to demolish and dismantle the newly free Poland, divvying it up between them. This is a good illustration of being careful what you ask for, however, because Prussia was not necessarily in better circumstances after the fact.
Prussia was now isolated. Over the past six years, it had allied itself with -- and then abandoned --virtually every European power. The king's known predilection for secret diplomacy and chaotic double-dealing left him a lonely and distrusted figure on the diplomatic scene. Experience would soon show that unless Prussia could count on the assistance of a great power in defending the German demarcation line, the neutrality zone was indefensible and therefore largely meaningless. An issue of longer-term significance was the disappearance of Poland from the European map. Even if we set aside the moral outrage committed against Poland by the partitioning powers, the fact remains that independent Poland had played a crucial role as a buffer and intermediary between the three eastern powers. Now that it no longer existed, Prussia shared, for the first time in its history, a long and indefensible border with Russia. From now on, the fortunes of Prussia would be inseparable from those of its vast and increasingly powerful eastern neighbour.

The success against Poland boosted Prussian confidence and was soon followed by a ghastly defeat by Napoleon's troops at Jena.
The Prussian army had not merely been defeated; it had been ruined. In the words of one officer who was at Jena: "The carefully assembled and apparently unshakeable military structure was suddenly shattered to its foundations." This was precisely the disaster that the Prussian neutrality pact of 1795 had been designed to avoid. How did it come about? Why did the Prussians abandon the relative security of the neutrality pact to wage war against a French Emperor at the height of his powers?
One survivor of this abysmal campaign was Carl von Clausewitz, who went on to write the classic book (still studied in contemporary military academies), On War.  His philosophy is far from that of mindless subordination to the military hierarchy. In fact, it sounds surprisingly humane and intelligent.
The most influential expression of this sea-change in values was Clausewitz's On War, an encompassing philosophical treatise on military conflict that remained unfinished when the author died of cholera in 1831. In Clausewitz's typology of military engagements, soldiers were not cattle to be herded across the battlefield, but men subject to the vicissitudes of mood, morale, hunger, cold, weariness and fear. An army should not be conceptualized as a machine, but as a conscious willed organism with its own collective "genius". It followed that military theory was a soft science whose variables were partly subjective. Flexibility and self-reliance, especially among junior commanders, were vital.
At the same time, Wilhelm von Humboldt (brother of explorer and naturalist Alexander) revamped the Prussian education system with a philosophy that sounds stunningly modern. Fellow Europeans at the time were amazed that Prussia, renowned as an authoritarian culture, could espouse such a liberal system for education.
For the first time, the kingdom acquired a single, standardized system of public instruction attuned to the latest trends in progressive European pedagogy. Education as such, Humboldt declared, was henceforth to be decoupled from the idea of technical or vocational training. Its purpose was not to turn cobblers' boys into cobblers, but to turn "children into people". The reformed schools were not merely to induct pupils into a specific subject matter, but to instil in them the capacity to think and learn for themselves. "The pupil is mature," he wrote, "when he has learned enough from others to be in a position to learn for himself." ...
by the 1840s, over 80 per cent of Prussian children between six and fourteen were attending primary schools, a figure unmatched anywhere in the contemporary world except for Saxony and New England. Literacy rates were correspondingly high. Prussian education was noted and admired abroad not just for its effectiveness and near-universality of access, but also for the liberal tone of its institutions. ...
American educational reformer Horace Mann visited Berlin, he was surprised to observe that school children in Prussia were taught to exercise their mental faculties for themselves by teachers whose techniques were anything but authoritarian. "Though I saw hundreds of schools and tens of thousands of pupils," Mann wrote, "I never saw one child undergoing punishment for misconduct. I never saw one child in tears from having been punished, or from fear of being punished."  Liberal visitors from Britain frequently expressed their surprise that such a "despotic" political arrangement should have produced such a progressive and open-minded educational system.

Even the Iron Cross, perhaps one of Prussia's most iconic symbols, had a very democratic award system.
Nothing better encapsulates the demotic quality of Prussian wartime mobilization than the new decorations created to honour distinguished service to the fatherland. The Iron Cross, designed and introduced on the initiative of the monarch, was the first Prussian decoration to be awarded to all ranks. "The soldier [should be] on equal terms with the general, since people will know when they see a general and a soldier with the same decoration, that the general has earned it through merit in his capacity, whereas the soldier can only have earned it within his own narrower sphere."
The progressive thinking that was enlivening the Prussian military and educational systems was, however, not making its way into the home. If they didn't invent the slogan Kinder, Küche, Kirche -- indicating that women's place should be limited to children, church and kitchen -- the 19th-century Prussians surely grew to embrace it.
The patriot philosopher Fichte had been arguing since the late 1790s that active citizenship, civic freedom and even property rights should be withheld from women, whose calling was to subject themselves utterly to the authority of their fathers and husbands. The gymnastic movement founded by Jahn in 1811 was centred on esteem for a putatively masculine form of physical prowess, as was the aggressive patriotism of the poet and nationalist publicist Ernst Moritz Arndt. In the same year, a circle of patriots gathered in Berlin to found a Christian-German Dining Society whose statutes explicitly excluded women (along with Jews and Jewish converts). Among the society's early cultural events was a lecture from Fichte on the "almost unlimited subjection of the wife to the husband". But the wars sharpened these distinctions and etched them more deeply in public awareness. The equivalence established here between masculinity, military service and active citizenship would become steadily more pronounced as the century progressed.
Heinrich Heine was also on the receiving end of increasing social repression in 19th-century Prussia. 
The first Prussians to welcome him home were of course the customs officials, who made a thorough search of his luggage. In a sequence of sparkling quatrains, Heine evokes his experience at the Prussian border:
They snuffled and burrowed through trousers and shirts
And handkerchieves -- nothing was missed;
They were looking for pen-nibs and trinkets and jewels
And for books on the contraband list. You fools!
If you think you'll find anything here
You must have been sadly misled!
The contraband that travels with me
Is stored up here, in my head!
So many books are stacked in my head -- A number beyond estimation!
My head is a twittering bird's nest of books
All liable to confiscation!  
It would be absurd to deny that these verses captured something real about the Prussian state. The oppressive, humourless and pettifogging engagement of the Prussian censorship authorities with political dissent was widely lamented by freethinkers across the kingdom.
Sadly, the heavy-handed Prussian government had now begun issuing chauvinist directives insisting that Army officers not dance the tango or any other foreign and similarly scandalous dance steps. Advances in their military training, however, continued unabated and to great effect. In 1866, Prussia made short work of its centuries' old rival, Austria, in a brief skirmish grandly called the Austro-Prussian war. 
Between 1862 and 1864, while the Austrians cut their annual expenditure on target practice, relying instead on shock tactics, the Prussians introduced an extensive regime of marksmanship: infantrymen were trained to use their weapons at all ranges, educated about how to use their sights to compensate for the arc of a bullet and required to keep a record of their success or failure in a ‘shooting log’. Here, the military command could reap the rewards of Prussia's exemplary education system. Without the kingdom's exceptionally high rates of literacy and numeracy, a regime of this kind would have been impossible. All of this implied the cession of a much greater level of autonomy and self-governance to the rank-and-file soldier than was the norm in Europe's mid-century armies. The new Prussian infantry were -- in theory at least-- professionals, not cattle to be herded in the direction of the enemy by their officers. 
On 22 July 1866, Emperor Franz Joseph capitulated to the Prussians. The Austro-Prussian war was over, just seven weeks after it had begun. The Austrian Emperor was spared any annexations, but had to agree to the dissolution of the German Confederation and the creation of a new Prussian-dominated North German Confederation to the north of the river Main. Prussia secured carte blanche to exact annexations as it pleased in the north, with the exception of the Austrians' faithful ally, the Kingdom of Saxony. Schleswig and Holstein were annexed, along with part of Hesse-Darmstadt and the entirety of Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, Nassau and the city of Frankfurt. 
Finally, at long last, in 1871 came the Federation of German States, in which Prussia was a large and dominant but not sole participant. And the federation was not an entirely comfortable arrangement -- Bavaria and the other southern Catholic areas chafed against the belligerance and Protestantism of Prussia and the north.  
With the formation of a German national state, the Prussia whose history we have traced in this book came to an end. Prussia was no longer an autonomous actor on the international stage. It had to learn to inhabit the large and ponderous body of the new Germany. The demands of German nationhood complicated the inner life of the Prussian state, amplifying its dissonances, disturbing its political equilibrium, loosening some bonds while reinforcing others, bringing at once a diffusion and a narrowing of identities.
Now Otto von Bismarck predominates, while Chancellor of the German Federation, he was first and foremost a Prussian. This is one character that I wish Mr. Chase had painted with a bit more of an artistic brush. I'd have liked a more nuanced glimpse into his character. On the other hand, maybe he was nothing more than a bullish thug. One day maybe I'll pick up a biography and dig more deeply into his personality. (I mentioned this thought to a friend, who heartily advised against it. He referred to a biography of Bismarck by Jonathan Steinberg, whose characterisation of the Chancellor, he maintains, is all one needs to know: “a self-centred, neurotic, corrupt, vindictive, treacherous, unprincipled, despotic, gluttonous ingrate, and a habitual liar to boot.”)
...rebellious behaviour triggered outbursts of vengeful fury from Bismarck."From the Russian border to the Adriatic Sea," he told a Prussian cabinet meeting in the autumn of 1871,"we are confronted with the combined propaganda of Slavs, ultramontanes and reactionaries, and it is necessary openly to defend our national interests and our language against such hostile activities." Hyperbolic to the point of paranoia, this imagined scenario of Slavic-Roman encirclement revealed the depth of Bismarck's anxieties for the new Prussian-German nation-state. Here again was that paradoxical sense of fragility and beleagueredness that had dogged the Prussian state at every phase of its aggrandizement.
In the relationship between chancellor and Emperor-king, it was generally Bismarck who had the upper hand. William I did assert himself on occasions, and he was no "shadow figure", but he could generally be pressed, bullied, blackmailed or cajoled into agreement with Bismarck on matters of importance. William I had not wanted the war against Austria and he disapproved of the chancellor's political campaign against the Catholics. When there were disagreements, Bismarck could unleash the full force of his personality, hammering his arguments home with tears, rages and threats of resignation. It was these scenes, which the Kaiser found almost intolerable, that moved him to make the famous observation: "It is hard being Emperor under Bismarck."
One final anecdote in the book gives us the early 20-century view of Prussia/Germany as a culture that is enslaved to authority and, in particular, the power of the military uniform.  A middle-aged ne'er-do-well named Voigt bought a Prussian Army uniform in a second-hand shop. Disguised thus, he ordered some enlisted soldiers to follow his orders. This motley troupe went to a municipality and demanded of the authorities there that they hand over the town's funds, which they did. Voigt was captured shortly thereafter, and the municipal funds returned, but the incident became fodder for stage comedies and jokes all over Europe.  
At one level, of course, this was a parable about the power of a Prussian uniform. Voigt himself was an unimpressive figure whose appearance bore all the marks of a life spent in poverty and confinement -- a police report based on witness accounts described the hoaxer as "thin, pale, elderly,stooped, bent sideways and bow-legged". It was, as one journalist remarked, the uniform rather than its weatherbeaten inhabitant that carried off the crime. Seen in this light, Voigt's tale evokes a social setting marked by a servile respect for military authority. This message was not lost on contemporaries: French journalists saw in it further evidence of the blind and mechanical obedience for which the Prussians were famed; The Times commented smugly that this was the kind of thing that could happen only in Germany.
So there, in a nutshell (in my version) or in a steamer trunk (in Christopher Clark's case), is the history of Prussia, a nation that started from little, achieved much, and has since ceased to exist.

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