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The Rise and Fall of Prussia (Phoenix…

The Rise and Fall of Prussia (Phoenix Giants)

by Sebastian Haffner

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Prussia beyond the goose step

The roots of the name of Prussia lay in the Baltic, where German knights Christianised the smaller leftover peoples between Germany and Poland. The knights took over the name of a small nation, and founded a state with a strict culture that grew rich in the 14th century.

Slowly a patchwork of states is united under the Hohenzollern. Only after 1701 would all the subjects of the Hohenzollern would call their state Prussia, with the Weichsel at the centre, and the division between western and eastern Prussia. Pomerania and Silesia are core areas, but the Hohenzollern would make Berlin in Brandenburg their capital.

The era between the Peace of Westphalia and the French Revolution created a flux of various great(er) powers. Prussia would develop itself into the smallest of the great powers. Frederic I managed to negotiate the title of king (of Prussia) for his dispatched realm. It would be rational state that induced but limited enthusiasm. Without an ethnic basis it needed ground rules to function. That also applied to its rulers. Because of its dispatched realm it also had to be a military state. Its financial, economic and population policy was in the service of its military, which was very disciplined. Its officer corps consisting mostly of Junkers never tried a coup d'état. The size of its army promoted extreme thrift, and power was preferred over pomp. The state promoted economic development to afford the high taxation as much as it promoted immigration and a radical and highly controversial indifference to its subjects' religion.

Its religious tolerance became more in line with the times during the age of the Enlightenment, embodied by the freethinker Frederick the Great. An intellectual and a humanist, Frederick the Great would call himself le premier domestique de l'état and claimed he offered his life for the Prussian Staatsraison by doing what was expected of a monarch at the time (activities that included falsifying money, breaking treaties and fighting wars). Frederick also initiated many humanitarian changes. Duty was stressed for the people. Prussia itself served no purpose; it had no ideology but the state. It survived the Seven Year War against Russia, Austria, and France through luck (the death of the tsarina) and perseverance.

In 1806 and 1813 Prussia gambled with its future again. The democratic reforms of French Revolution had made the Prussian modernity appear passé. The peace loving Frederick William III was no match for the power play of Napoleon and the other great powers, and Berlin was occupied by the French while the king escaped to East Prussia. It became French occupied territory, a state in name only. It speeded up the social but not the political reforms. It required treaties with Russia and Austria to survive even after Napoleon's disastrous march on Moscow. At the Congress of Vienna, Metternich preferred Prussia's survival to restore the balance of power in Europe. Consequently, Russia got parts of the eastern Prussia and Prussia got the petit-bourgeois Catholic Rhineland in return. Prussia was more German than before.

A new reactionary, peaceful, and Christian nation of the age of Romanticism emerged with a (combined Lutheran and Calvinistic) state church. In 1848 Prussia got a parliament and a constitution that would last until 1918, but it was also a police state. Prussia started to industrialise.

Mr. Haffner holds Otto von Bismarck accountable for the demise of Prussia. Bismarck was too successful in turning Prussia into a leading German and Germany into a leading European power. In a united Germany Prussia lost its independence. Bismarck's influence on Prussian politics was unique for that state. His boss was a capable military officer, smart enough to assign von Moltke as chief of staff. Never at ease, Bismarck needed to be constantly irreplaceable and needed constant crises and successes. The strict conservative Bismarck despised principles, and the purpose of his policies always depended flexibly upon what could be accomplished. Bismarck's Prussia fought with Austria over German leadership, when it unexpectedly won the Battle of Köninggrätz in 1866. Prussia required no territory from Austria, but got a military union with Austria's southern German allies. At the same time Prussia annexed territories in the north. Bismarck became chancellor of the northern union with its own Reichstag next to his Prussian responsibilities.

Bismarck had not calculated the war with France of 1870-71. It was a war of peoples rather than of states. The war required the inclusion of southern Germany, thus leading to a form of unification of all of Germany, which resulted in the German Empire. The new constellation weakened Prussia as much as Germany flourished. Prussian territories became more German than Bavaria or Württemberg, where a regional culture prevailed. The empire was un-Prussian, putting democratic demands upon Bismarck. Always putting Prussia’s interest first, this Germany was big enough for Bismarck.

According to Mr. Haffner Wilhelm II's Weltpolitik and the rise of the western part of the empire had nothing to do with Prussia. The agricultural Junkers from Eastern Prussia protested. With the fall of the Hohenzollern at the end of the First World War, Prussia lost its binding element and raison d'être. All territorial loss was Prussian land. In 1932 Franz von Papen turned Prussia into Reichsland. The constitutional state was the first thing Hitler abolished.

In this concise history of Prussia, Mr. Haffner presents the country as Europe’s most enlightened state of the 18th century. And although it would be surpassed by France by the end of that era, Prussia remained broad minded and free thinking. Between its meteoric rise and fall, it could be proud of its Incorruptible civil service and independent justice, religious tolerance and enlightened culture. ( )
1 vote mercure | Nov 15, 2011 |
Ein Stern-Buch. / Zahlreiche Abbildungen ( )
  CaptainHaddock | Feb 21, 2009 |
A very interesting book. Offers a great insight into the Prussian state. Dispels many of the myths that surround Prussia such as its German mission or that it lead to Nazi Germany. At the same time the book is honest and does not claim that the good aspects of Prussia were due to anything other than self-interest. ( )
1 vote aitkenchri | Nov 19, 2008 |
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Prussia, a state which contributed so much to European civilization, only exis-ted as an independent power for 170 years. Sebastian Haffner, a Prussian by birth, reassesses the legend and tells the short but dramatic history of this unique state. He casts fresh light on its foundation, its struggle to become a great power in the eighteenth century, its important role as one of the Three Black Eagles with Austria and Russia, and its eventual disappearance from the map of Europe after the establishment of the German Empire.… (more)

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