It is not often that a great power vanishes into thin air overnight, but that is exactly what happened to Prussia. With the stroke of a pen, a state that had stood at the center of European politics for centuries was abruptly ordered off the stage of history, dismissed as “a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany” by Law No. 46 of the Allied Control Council, signed on Feb. 25, 1947.
Few tears were shed. But Iron Kingdom, Christopher Clark's stately, authoritative history of Prussia from its humble beginnings to its ignominious end, presents a much more complicated and compelling picture of the German state, which is too often reduced to a caricature of spiked helmets and polished boots. Prussia and its army were inseparable, but Prussia was also renowned for its efficient, incorruptible civil service; its innovative system of social services; its religious tolerance; and its unrivaled education system, a model for the rest of Germany and the world. This, too, was Prussia — a tormented kingdom that, like a tragic hero, was brought down by the very qualities that raised it up.
Clark, a senior lecturer in modern European history at Cambridge University, does an exemplary job. A lively writer, he organizes masses of material in orderly fashion, clearly establishing his main themes and pausing at crucial junctures to recapitulate and reconsider. Prussia, a self-invented artifact right down to its name, demands the kind of careful demythologizing that it receives from Clark, who gently but insistently exposes the flaws in most of the received wisdom about his subject. A result is an illuminating, profoundly satisfying work of history, brightened by vivid character sketches of the principals in his drama.
To take just one example of many, Clark challenges the notion that Frederick William I (1713-40) achieved what one 19th-century Prussian historian called “the perfection of absolutism.” While it is true, Clark acknowledges, that Frederick curbed the power of the nobility and from Berlin imposed centralized rule over the region known as the Mark Brandenburg, posterity has greatly exaggerated the power of the nascent Prussian state, whose officials numbered not more than a few hundred men.
“Official documents passed to their destinations through the hands of pastors, vergers, innkeepers, and schoolchildren who happened by,” Clark writes. In one principality, an investigation found that most government communications took up to 10 days to travel just a few kilometers, partly because their first stop was the local tavern, where they were unsealed, passed around and discussed over glasses of brandy, finally arriving at their destinations, in the words of investigators, “so dirtied with grease, butter or tar that one shudders to touch them.” The supposedly well-oiled machine of Prussian absolutism squeaked and creaked, especially in the hinterlands.
The myth of Prussian militarism, likewise, receives careful scrutiny. A large, disciplined army transformed the Mark Brandenburg, with its poor soil, scant natural resources, and lack of access to the sea, into a regional power. But the militarization of society did not really begin until the late 19th century, and even then Clark questions whether the Prussian experience set it apart from the rest of Europe. France and Britain were equally committed to empire-building and military might. “The ‘civility’ and anti-militarism of British society were perhaps more a matter of self-perception than a faithful representation of reality,” he writes. “It is also worth noting that the German peace movement developed on a scale unparalleled elsewhere.”