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The Origins of Prussian Militarism

Peter H. Wilson suggests that the aggressiveness of Wilhelmine Germany was not necessarily a direct consequence of the Prussian social system of the eighteenth century.

The story of Prussia’s transformation from potential victim of hostile international forces into a dominant and aggressive state often seems miraculous. To those who viewed it in the eighteenth century, it inspired a mixture of admiration and apprehension. These feelings gave way in the nineteenth century to a rather less critical glorification fostered by the authorities and German nationalist historians like Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-96), who saw Prussia’s rise as the foundation of a united and dynamic imperial Germany. This vision disintegrated in the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century, after which Prussia’s earlier rise appeared a historical ‘wrong turn’ (Sonderweg) on the path to modernity. It remains nonetheless a compelling tale that requires explanation.

Known as the ‘sandbox of the Holy Roman Empire’ on account of its poor soil and limited natural resources, the lands of the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty were scattered across northern Europe from what is now modern Poland along the southern Baltic shore through to isolated enclaves on the Dutch border. When Frederick William (1620-88) became Elector or ruler of Brandenburg in 1640, he inherited a collection of different provinces lacking in common bonds or a uniform administration.

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