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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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

800 pages, Belknap Press, ISBN-13: 978-0674023857

Christopher Clark begins his survey of Prussian history with the death of his protagonist – the State of Prussia – at the hands of the Allied powers after WW II; he then proceeds to develop the reasons for that destruction. In doing so, he follows Prussia’s growth from its sandy Brandenburg heartland to a continental power and threat to world peace. The story of this rise and fall has value for students of strategy and national security, as well as armchair historians interested in modern Europe.

Strategists will recognize many facets of their discipline throughout this well-documented book. The Hohenzollerns, originally the Burgraves of Nuremberg, purchased Brandenburg in 1417 for prestige, with Burgrave Frederick paid a king’s ransom in gold to become one of only seven electors of the Holy Roman Emperor. As electors, the Hohenzollern were influential among the 300-odd sovereigns owing fealty – if not always paying loyalty – to the Habsburg emperor in Vienna. The position (and Hohenzollern ambition) eventually led Prussia to contend with Vienna for leadership of the German nation. Success came in 1871 and meant the elimination of Prussia as an independent state. Along the way, Prussian rulers developed the tools of state necessary to match their ambition: The Great Elector played the game of diplomacy well, protecting his non-contiguous realm from encroachment by the great powers while strengthening it economically with Protestant immigrants; Frederick William II, the Soldier King, built a formidable army and a bureaucratic and economic structure to support it; his son, Frederick the Great, used that army to boost Prussia into the ranks of great powers.

The student of national security will learn how Frederick’s successors squandered his gains. They allowed the army and its supporting structures to ossify, while poor diplomacy and failure to ally with Austria and Russian against Napoleon led to defeat and occupation. Timid King Fredrick William III recognized that he could retake his kingdom only after massive reforms; fortunately, he was blessed with a remarkable generation of administrative and military reformers. Professor Clark recounts the struggles of Hardenberg, Stein, Gneisenau and others in rebuilding the Prussian state. Their reforms ranged from education to agriculture to the bureaucracy, economics and citizenship. These efforts yielded a reconstituted Prussian army of citizen-soldiers – and an allied victory at Waterloo.

The armchair historian will find more than the machinations of kings and generals in their quest for power. Clark sets each epoch into cultural context. The polygot Prussian subject is here: the French Huguenot; the east Elbian peasant; the independent-thinking Rhinelander. Great movers and shakers are here as well: in addition to the Napoleonic-era reformers are the Bismarcks, Hegels and Fontanes. Above all, Clark gives us the land and its people – the true underpinning of an agrarian society developing into a modern industrial power.

Clark’s final chapters chronicle the cooption of the Prussian identity, already subsumed by the German Reich in 1871, into a backdrop for Nazi propaganda. The end result is a Prussia, stripped of its identity, destroyed by war and occupied by the unsympathetic Allies. It ceased to exist as a political entity by Allied decree in 1947. All that remained were gutted buildings, buried monuments and Brandenburg, soon to be a province in the Soviet Union's East German satellite.

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