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The End of Prussia

By Ian R. Mitchell | Published in History Today 1985 
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Ian R. Mitchell reviews a work on Prussia by Gordon A. Craig.

The End of Prussia

By Gordon A. Craig. 102 pp. (University of Wisconsin Press, £14.25)

As Gordon Craig remarks in the introduction to this book, periodisation has always fascinated historians, and for the indulgence of this vice Prussia offers ample opportunity. He refers to the recent work of Rudolf von Thadden, Fragen an Preussen, which points out the difficulties of dating both the beginnings of Prussia, and its end. The establishment of the early colonisations of the Teutonic Knights, the confirmation of the Hohenzollern as electors in Brandenburg in 1415, the union of Brandenburg with Prussia in the early seventeenth century are competing answers to the former question. To the latter, the rivals are the creation of the German Empire in 1871, the abdication of the last Hohenzollern in 1918, the subjection of Prussia to Reich rule in 1932, and the 1947 order of the Allied Control Council abolishing the name of Prussia as 'the bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany'.

Craig's work consists of a stimulating quartet of meditations on particular moments in Prussian history, when forces calling for change and renewal were met with determined, and successful, opposition. He first gives us the reform plans of Stein, which were opposed as 'Jacobin anarchy' by the obscure Marwitz, representative of the Prussian Junkers by his very mediocrity. Counter-posed to Bismarck's blood and iron Realpolitik, is the romantic humanism of the leader of a Vormärz salon, Bettina von Arnim, who tried to convince Frederick William IV to become a reforming 'people's king'. As William II revived the worst trappings of Borussianismus for his rule, Craig shows how his initial admirer and 'dyed in the wool' Prussian, the novelist Theodore Fontane, gradually became disgusted with the prevailing philistinism and materialism, and concluded, 'The new, the better world, begins with the fourth estate.' Craig's final meditation ironically finds the Social Democrats, under their Prussian Minister-President Braun, the greatest defenders after World War One of the territorial integrity of the Hohenzollern lands, since they saw Prussia's social democratic majority as being a check on anti-democratic forces in Germany as a whole. Against Braun were ranged Adenauer, who wanted to dismember Prussia and set up a 'West German' state as early as 1919, or even support a break with Germany altogether in the form of the Rheinland separatist movement, and also Hindenburg and the residual Junkertum, who resented Braun's attempts at reform.

However, apart from the almost throwaway final comment that, 'thanks to its soldiers and agrarians, Prussia had committed suicide in 1933', Craig really sidesteps the task he had apparently set himself at the beginning of his study, except in as far as he considers the failure of each separate attempt at regeneration as having 'contributed' to Prussia's death. But nominalism aside, Prussia historically should be understood as a Hohenzollern-ruled, Junker-dominated state; had it been reformed in the ways demanded by Stein, Fontane and others, it would no longer have been Prussia, as opponents of change from Marwitz onwards correctly realised. If Prussia is thus conceived, its origins lie in the early fifteenth century, and it finally expired in 1918; 'Prussia' after this date was so in name only. It is true, however, that Prussia 'took an unconscionable time dying', since its fatal disease was contracted as early as 1871. Craig quotes William I's comment to Bismarck on the foundation of the German Empire, that 'we are carrying Prussia to its grave'. Though this was a little premature, the well-documented decline in Junker-land and office holdings in Prussia subsequently left them an embattled minority even within their heartlands; moreover the adoption by William II of the policies of Weltpolitik and Flottenpolitik, opposed by the East Elbians, shows their declining influence at the national level. Fontane pointed out that William II understood that 'a German Emperor was something different from a margrave of Brandenburg', which the Junkertum never did.

The fact that Craig does not squarely answer the questions of periodisation raised in his introduction, and hence evaluate the rival moments for the 'death of Prussia', does not detract form the fact that his finely-composed essays offer many fascinating observations on the slow demise of that state, which continues to mesmerise historians as it did contemporaries.



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