It’s become a pet peeve of mine that so many historians (particularly, though not exclusively, popular historians) offer German history. Germany itself is a relatively recent creation, of course, with a large number of regional and religious cleavages that endure to this day. Historians often affect vexation that a country with a long history of progressive thought and forward-thinking cultural development could be responsible for the aggressive militarism of the Second Reich and the atrocities of the Third. So, the need for an explanation arises: perhaps some unique flaw, or national schizophrenia, in the “German character” that allows them to produce both Goethe and Hitler? Or perhaps it’s easier to tag a country that initiated the Second World War as uniquely evil, without forcing non-Germans to recognize these contradictions in themselves.
Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom pushes back against these lingering stereotypes. While not always a breezy read (its 680 pages are packed with incident and detailed policy studies), it is as thorough and illuminating. Clark, an Australian historian working in the UK, is careful neither to dwell on the sonderweg idea of Germany’s path to destruction, nor to embrace a nationalist view of the country as uniquely enlightened and unfairly maligned. With its able balancing of statesmen and ordinary Prussians, and its accounting for how history, culture (and Kultur) and personalities shaped German development for good or ill, it rivals Richard Evans’ Third Reich Trilogy as one of the best histories of Germany written in English.
Primarily, Iron Kingdom chronicles Prussia, from its origins as a minor electorate in the Holy Roman Empire to the center of German unification and empire. Clark’s narrative focuses on how Prussia, despite serving as a synecdoche for the less appealing aspects of German history (authoritarianism, unthinking obedience militarist expansion) was for centuries a driving force for European progress, boasting a proud culture of artistic and intellectual pursuits, progressive education systems and efficient government bureaucratic rule for centuries. Not to mention, for much of its history, religious tolerance towards Catholics, Jews and other minorities that often seemed centuries ahead of its time. One’s assessment of German history cannot be exclusively defined by its Gotterdammerung in the Third Reich; but also one can hardly ignore its roots in past history and personalities. Thus Clark, in writing such an expansive history, needs to thread his needle very carefully. And he succeeds beautifully.
Clark’s book is at its best when chronicling Prussia’s various leaders of thought and government, with a focus (though not exclusive) on the Hohenzollerns: a “family on the make” who ruled Prussia for most of its history. Under a succession of rulers, some visionary (Frederick William, the “Great Elector” who wrested increased independence from the morass of the Thirty Years War), others mediocre or worse, the Hohenzollerns transformed the small principality (consisting of northeastern Germany, and much of modern Poland) from a backwater to a major player on the European stage. The early Hohenzollerns were not uniformly brilliant or enlightened, but even in their early stages showed interest in free trade, educational reform and military modernization. At first just another state within the loosely confederated Holy Roman Empire, Prussia began developing a distinct identity which marked it distinct from its peers.
The Prussian state reached its apotheosis under Frederick the Great, whose near-half-century rule (1740-1786) reshaped German, and European history. Fredericks combination of military genius, government reforms, artistic pursuits and grouchy temperament came to represent Germany’s Enlightenment. Appropriately, arts and philosophy flourished under Frederick; an amateur musician and inveterate writer (usually in French, as he found the German language repulsive) who courted Voltaire, patronized Bach, reinstituted the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin, commissioned redistribution of farmland and formalized the bureaucratic and structural reforms of his predecessors. His intellectual pursuits were paired with epochal military achievements, particularly in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) where he won a series of improbable victories against an alliance of France, Austria and Russia.
Clark argues that to the extent the myth of “Prussian militarism” rings true, it’s the result of the country’s unique geography. Located in central Europe between the Holy Roman Empire, Austria, Russia and Sweden, it was scourged in the Thirty Years War, enlisted as a pawn in the various Continental wars of the 18th Century and, after Frederick’s brilliant victories in the Seven Years War, defeated and partitioned within an inch of its life by Napoleon. Prussia thus developed its military to ensure some degree of security, and began winning wars rather than merely enduring them. But its pragmatic (one might say devious) approach to foreign policy, playing its powerful neighbors against one another, ensured it was dragged into continental wars, sometimes against its will, often to its detriment. It’s wrong to draw a straight line from Frederick to Hitler, but it’s easy to interpret this as the seed of later obsessions with “encirclement” and lebensraum that drove so many German leaders to distraction. As, indeed, the veneration of the strong leaders (Frederick most of all, who became the subject of a near-religious cult after the Seven Years War) provided a baleful template for less principled rulers.
Indeed, for all that he lauds the progressivism of Prussia, Clark shows that its system just as easily accommodated reaction. The aristocratic Junker class, for the obvious example, maintained a near-feudal system of control over their subjects, independence from government strictures and heavy influence on agriculture and industry. Clark argues, with some justice, that the Junker system of landownership was more tolerant than many of its contemporaries, at least when first established, in allowing autonomy and encouraging good treatment of tenant farmers. The problem is that it continued well into the 20th Century, when it came increasingly to appear as an archaic relic. Religious acceptance was extended, but only so far (Frederick, although encouraging toleration of Catholics and Jews, pursued oppressive policies against both in Silesia and other occupied territories). And although women (at least, aristocratic women) played a major role in the rise and development of Prussia, after the reign of bachelor Frederick a heavily chauvinist view of society as male-driven reduced them to marginal (though certainly not silent) figures within German culture.
Clark views the 1848 Revolutions in Germany not as a “turning point [which] failed to turn” (in A.J.P. Taylor’s famous phrase) but a moment when Prussian history changed, for better and worse. The Frankfurt Parliament laid down a platform of liberal nationalist principles, calling for democratic rights and German unification, viewing the latter as a potential guarantor against the outmoded class systems of extant German states. To the surprise of many, Frederick William IV (r. 1840-1861) sided with the revolutionaries and granted many of their concessions, including the establishment of a constitutional monarch, with an elected Reichstag along with an upper, noble house of Parliament. Yet Frederick William refused to accept enthronement as Emperor of Germany, believing a united German state detrimental to Prussia’s health. His successor, Wilhelm I (r. 1861-1888), had no such scruples, and gladly harnessed the ideals of the 1848 rebels to his own, reactionary agenda. Thus, under the aegis of him and Otto von Bismarck, unification was affected in 1871, after victory in the Franco-Prussian War and declaration of the German Empire at Versailles.
Bismarck, unsurprisingly, takes center stage for much of Iron Kingdom’s narrative. Long a product both of veneration and scorn, Clark treats him as a complicated figure. Himself a Junker, Bismarck “could not” be a liberal and viewed any concessions to the Left as a means to defang radical opponents. Thus Bismarck liberalized elements of the German welfare state, extended male suffrage and to some degree expanded the power of the Reichstag. But the Iron Chancellor also introduced authoritarian measures: the Kulturkampf (a crackdown on the Catholic Church in Germany), the suppression of dissident and radical groups (outlawing the Social Democratic Party multiple times) and, though he initially opposed it, creation of an overseas colonial empire. Bismarck in turn was swept away by Wilhelm II (1888-1918), who succeeded the throne after his liberal father, Frederick III, died prematurely. In his aggressive weltpolitik, authoritarian delusions at home and erratic personality, the last Kaiser embodied a grotesque caricature of everything German, destroying the country’s reputation as a land of artists and liberals prior to the First World War.
Prussia cannot be fairly blamed for the rise of Hitler, as Clark shows; the Nazis were viewed skeptically by Prussian conservatives and struggled to gain a political foothold in that part of the country, whose working and middle classes tended to support Social Democrats and other left parties. Still, Hindenburg and other Prussian elites (including Wilhelm’s son the Crown Prince, who persuaded himself Hitler would restore his father to the throne) were complicit in Hitler’s rise to power, helped cement his dictatorship and followed him loyally until the last days of World War II. And certainly, Hitler and his propagandists made heavy use of Prussian history to justify their reign: the images of Frederick and Bismarck were invoked as nationalist heroes, their enlightened policies and liberal actions ignored in favor of military achievements and the Fuhrerprinzip. Never mind that Hitler was Austrian, his party’s powerbase was in Bavaria and that his Party struggled to gain support in “Red Berlin”; in the interest of propaganda, tying “the Bohemian Corporal” to Prussian heroes and traditions served a great purpose than truth.
This propaganda, of course, cut both ways. After World War II, the Allies wrote Prussia (“the core of Germany” an the “source of recurring pestilence,” according to Winston Churchill) out of existence as a political entity by the Allies, more for emotional reasons than factual considerations. Any remnants of the Junker system were disbanded, with the Prussian elite (including the Hohenzollerns) losing their land and property, triggering lawsuits that linger to this day. Such are the wages of stereotypes, which echo into modern historiography and political debates. Today’s Germans themselves debate whether Prussia’s legacy should be embraced or scorned; English-speakers continue to invoke “Prussianism” as an insult; and Germany’s heavy involvement supplying military equipment to Ukraine has raised trepidation about the resurgence of the “Prussian spirit.” Clark’s book, though a dense, sometimes exhausting read, especially for lay readers without background in the subject, provides a thorough, balanced corrective to that lasting stereotype. If nothing else, for avoiding the usual pitfalls of Anglosphere historians generalizing about the “German character,” Clark is to be commended.