Wednesday, April 29, 2015

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

400 years, more or less. That is how long Prussia existed as an independent political unit. Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom: the rise and downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 explores the history, so full of incident and drama, of this north German state.

So what is Prussia?  The dates featured in the title are somewhat arbitrary. The Duchy of Prussia existed since 1525 morphing in the proceeding centuries into a modern state that was essentially shattered after World War I though it took until 1947 (post World War II) for the official abolition. I mentioned it is located in northern Germany but to be specific it was the lands in and around Berlin (historically called the March of Brandenburg—a Roman thing) which united with the Duchy of Prussia. Why did Brandenburg and the Duchy of Prussia unite? For an explanation I need to introduce another name, the House of Hohenzollern. The Hohenzollern was a royal dynasty first mentioned in the record books in 1061. The Hohenzollerns eventually went on to become the hereditary kings of Prussia and later Emperors of the united German lands (with Austria as a notable exception).   Prussia didn’t have much going for it in the early days. Impoverished of natural resources and with lots of sandy soil in and around Berlin making farming a challenge, Prussia had the deck stacked against it. To add to its national anxiety Prussia also had lots of potentially dangerous neighbours like Pomerania (another interesting and little known, once upon a time, country that hugged the Baltic Sea), an aggressive and sometimes expansionist Sweden, a haughty France and Austria both of whom looked upon the checkerboard patch of German lands as their military playground and the always massive Russia to the east.

Part of what makes any country, and Prussia is no exception, fascinating are the individuals who lead it and the funny quirks of history that shaped it. Prussia’s history is rich in both famous people and in the auspicious, almost fated, twists and turns in its national narrative. I will mention just two events—perhaps national ideas would be a better term—that shaped the north centre of Europe: the idea of union and the idea of a powerful military.

The idea of a united Germany was in the air since at least the Napoleonic age. The major stumbling block was the question of who would lead the union. Bavaria, Saxony and others mistrusted Prussia. A lot of Prussia’s history can be told with an eye on this idea of influencing and ultimately binding all the various small German states under its guiding hand.

Prussia’s keen desire to create a sophisticated and modern military was a result of its location on the map of Europe. It is this martial tradition that has bequeathed to the world the stereotypical idea of the Prussians as a warrior society, something like a modern day Sparta. The enthusiasm for the art of war would be its downfall. At least this is the common narrative. What I enjoyed about Clark’s Iron Kingdom is that it goes some ways in correcting this overly simplistic chronicle. Prussia was not the whole of Germany, though it was one of its principle voices. Perhaps one of its great gifts to Germany was its military prowess, but it would be a mistake to think that this tradition necessarily lead to Germany’s subsequent involvement as a major protagonist in the two world wars. As Otto Von Bismarck (one of Prussia’s great statesmen) argued, diplomacy and the ability to formulate alliances so as not to go to war is the best policy;  that is, keep the peace by keeping a healthy balance of aligned states that can check each other’s aggrandizing desires. When he died his shrewd advice seemed to die with him. The terrible events that followed only proved to underscore his very sage advice.

Why read the Iron Kingdom? It is first and foremost a dramatic story. Here you have the birth, life and death of an entire country in 688 pages. There are big names in this story that someone who prides him or herself on knowing a thing or two about world history should recognize, names such as Frederick William ‘the Great Elector,’ Frederick II ‘the Great’ and Otto Von Bismarck to name a few of the more notable figures. In many ways countries, nations, states are like people full of hopes and dreams, they strive to face challenges, succeed sometimes and fail at other times and because they are big their impact can be big. Prussia had an immense impact on the history of Europe (and the world) completely out of measure given its smallish size and humble beginnings. Its legacy like a colossal black eagle—an icon featured prominently on all of its flags—looms large across the heart of that continent. To this day whenever there is a reorganization of the electoral boundaries in north eastern Germany, or when a new building or street needs an appellation Germans debate whether to resurrect the term Prussia. The debates are heated. This book goes a ways towards explaining why there is still so much oomph behind that name.

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