The Prussians are coming

Prospect Magazine

The Prussians are coming


Troops in Afghanistan and a shaky eurozone have left Germany searching for ways to redefine itself. Can the militaristic values of the old kingdom of Prussia fill the gap?

Those were the days: “The proclamation of Prussian king Wilhelm I as Emperor of Germany at Versailles in 1871,” by Anton von Werner

When politicians visit the troops in Afghanistan, their schedules and speeches are adapted to the relentless rhythm of 24-hour TV news. Although they may be sweating buckets under their body armour, they know that a calm, statesmanlike soundbite is the essence of their trip—the cartilage that connects combat, injury and death in a distant land to the voters at home. But when Angela Merkel paid a visit to dusty Kunduz province in December, her address to the troops defied the usual demands for reassurance. Wrestling with a lifelong habit of circumlocution, the German chancellor tried straight talking instead. “We don’t just have a ‘war-like’ situation here,” she said. “You are actively involved in battles that only occur in war.” The soldiers nodded glumly, a little mystified by her presence. “For us, this [war] is a totally new experience,” she went on. “Before now, all we had to go on were the second world war tales of our parents.”

So it’s official: Germany is at war. After 65 years in which German politicians avoided combat or even mentioning the K-word (K for krieg) Merkel had spelled it out. Consciously or not, she was echoing the words of Prussian thinker Carl von Clausewitz, who in On War (1832) set out the conditions that made armed conflict “a continuation of political intercourse.” One priority, he wrote, was to call it by its real name. When Merkel did just that she was tapping into a growing national urge for ancient military heroes. And the closest Germany has to those are ghosts of Von Clausewitz’s Prussia.

Unlike the regimental chapels of the British, French or Americans, Germany’s are not decked out with tattered standards once carried into battle. There are no marble plaques listing victories; the glorification of Rommel’s Afrika Korps or Guderian’s Panzer armies is out of the question. Instead, the country must somehow distil the courage and skill of the Prussian military caste as an inspiration for troops in Afghanistan, and as a way of legitimising the practice of fighting abroad in defence of the national interest. It was Prussian officers who tried and failed to blow up Hitler, Prussian commanders who defeated the French in 1871 on the bloody road to German unification. The venerated generals of the 19th century—August von Gneisenau, say, or Gerhard von Scharnhorst—are being demummified.

But there is more to this than dashing up to the country’s national attic and dusting off a few portraits. The recognition of war, and of the need for a rekindling of military virtue, is part of a much broader upheaval in German society. Across the board, a disorientated Germany is trying to puzzle out how to give political expression to a grassroots conservatism. It is Prussia, the deeply flawed garrison state that was officially abolished in 1947, which is providing some inspiration.

The credibility of political elites took a battering in the financial crisis. The enormous sums spent by governments to avert meltdown in the banks, or the collapse of vulnerable industries, has thrown out of kilter the contract between citizens and the state. The reach of government has increased to levels unthinkable a decade ago. Yet while the same politicians who abdicated so much power to the financial sector are still in control, their legitimacy is threadbare.

The result, not only in Germany, has been a swelling legion of non-voters and of populists in various guises exploiting this credibility gap. For Germans, these issues have come to a head in the potentially ruinous scramble to defend the euro. They are convinced, probably correctly, that they will be forced to bail out the profligate Greeks—and that other wobbly members of the eurozone will be next in the queue for help. As a nation, the Germans feel hard done by, cheated by politicians such as Helmut Kohl, who once told them that the only alternative to monetary union was a Europe at risk of war. Now a German political class that enjoys little respect is demanding further sacrifice from its citizens on behalf of a Europe that has failed to live up to its promises.

With these challenges—be they external, such as involvement in war or an eroded faith in the European project, or a general internal malaise—has come the search for new ways of redefining Germanness. The mainstream conservative grouping, comprising Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and her Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, has been unable to soothe the frustration with the political class. But there is little sympathy either for the extreme right and its manifest thuggishness. Instead there is a gaping hole in the conservative spectrum that has yet to be filled, as the Dutch have done with the likes of Geert Wilders. Islamophobia plays its part in modern European politics but in Germany, at least, it does not answer the need for a value-orientated society, a yearning, a Sehnsucht, for an orderliness in everyday life.

Prussian virtue is thus making a comeback. There is a separateness to Prussians that appears to give them a standout integrity in a morally blurred world. True, Hitler managed to bribe and bully the German general staff (many of them Prussians) but Prussian officers also tried to put the matter right in the bungled July 1944 bomb plot. “Don’t ever confuse Prussians with the Germans,” a grand, cigarillo-smoking Prussian dame, Countess Maria von Maltzan, told me not long before her death in 1997. “We follow our own path.” Maria certainly did: she took a doctorate in natural sciences, bumped across Africa in a battered Chevrolet treating sick animals, fell in love with and dumped a cabaret performer, worked with the anti-Nazi resistance, hid Jewish companions during the war and then travelled the world as a circus vet.

Perhaps part of their allure is that Prussians learn from defeat. Von Clausewitz, smarting from a thrashing dealt out to the Prussian army by Napoleon, went on to foresee the role of a new Prussian army and its participation in war as an educative device for society as a whole. Napoleon was at the helm of an often chaotic but highly motivated citizen army; Prussia, to match such zeal and force, had to develop a dialogue between politics and the military, to establish a common code. Now, the engagement in Afghanistan and the return of “Made in Germany” body bags have stirred the ghost of Von Clausewitz and crystallised long-dormant questions about national identity. For which values are we fighting? What do we stand for as a nation? What, precisely, are we defending?


The changed situation has thrown up a new style of German politician. Step forward Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg—the defence minister, for short—whose full name bears testimony to his aristocratic origins. Listening to Motörhead on his iPod and reading the verse of Heinrich Heine in noisy transport planes, the minister has been flying to the Afghan front on an almost monthly basis. When he arrives he does not imitate his predecessor and pose in the mess, queuing for pea soup shoulder to shoulder with the Bundeswehr, but lies down next to marksmen and risks getting shot. He pins a freshly-minted medal on uniformed chests, the modern equivalent of the Prussian Iron Cross, which is awarded to soldiers who “have taken active part at least once in combat or who have faced great personal danger from military or terrorist force.” Since 1945, the German raison d’état has been to avoid putting its soldiers in the way of great personal danger. As of last year, they are being decorated for it. Again and again, the values that derive from or contribute to battlefield courage are praised by the minister for their universal applicability: loyalty, civic responsibility, a sense of duty, self-discipline, a readiness to make sacrifices for the greater good.

Baron zu Guttenberg is, in fact, from southern German Franconian nobility but he is seen as a credible purveyor of Prussian values and the integrity of his caste; he, it seems, has become the model of what Germans expect from their politicians. He served in a crack regiment during his national service; he champions a modern rather than heel-clicking conservatism. As economics minister he spoke out in 2009 against a state-financed rescue of Opel (and was shouted down) and successfully conveys the impression that he is neither emotionally or financially dependent on political advancement. The Prussian link comes from his wife Stephanie, a descendant of the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. She has taken to visiting Afghanistan with him, dressed in Ugg boots, a lumberjack shirt and skinny jeans. Together, they are media darlings. But more than that, they represent a new way of presenting German politics, while at the same time being anchored to a supposedly more honourable epoch.

The fact that these Prussian virtues are more remembered than real has not stopped the revival. There are Prussotrash T-shirts bearing the emblem of the emaciated black Prussian eagle; there is Prussomania, including a cult around Queen Luise, monarch at the age of 21, dead in 1810 at the age of 34. Her early demise and her courage in meeting a contemptuous Napoleon have earned her the tag of “Queen of Hearts,” drawn predictable comparisons with Diana, Princess of Wales, and spawned, in 2010 alone, half a dozen fawning biographies. But there have also been serious attempts to extract contemporary relevance out of Prussia. One influential exhibition in Potsdam, “Preussens Eros—Preussens Musen” (“Prussia’s Eros—Prussia’s Muses”), which opened in September, was dedicated to Prussian women who demonstrated strength at times of crisis. The writer Christina Tilmann picked out the Prussian qualities of one of the exhibition’s subjects, the actress Marlene Dietrich, who always remained at heart more of an officer’s daughter than a diva. “The toughness with herself, the iron discipline and a certain motherliness; all this she retained long after she became a star,” said Tilmann. “The sense of duty and honour that was preached to her as a young girl shaped her life until the end.”

These are formative times in Germany. Although to outsiders the country seems in robust health, from inside society seems confused, almost dazed, frequently angry. In particular, Germans feel that the system is letting down its children; there is no more profound measure of social disenchantment. One bestselling book, In Praise of Discipline, by the former headmaster of Salem boarding school, Bernhard Bueb, sets out the solution in terms that would be embraced by Prussian educational reformers. “We have lost the way of educating,” writes Bueb. “We need to find the courage to educate, the necessary leadership, the courage to impose discipline.”

Also a bestseller is The End of Patience, by the late judge Kirsten Heisig, which makes an appeal for tougher sentencing. In a society without self-discipline, she concludes, it is the judiciary that has to do the compensating and correcting. But in a state “that gives due respect to order and that educates its young accordingly, the courts would not have to act as a backstop.” Another hit, Germany Abolishes Itself, by a maverick former Bundesbank director and politician, Thilo Sarrazin, (which David Goodhart, Prospect’s editor at large, discussed in the December 2010 issue) accused the nation of allowing itself to dumb down by not properly regulating immigration. Sarrazin is the descendant of Huguenot immigrants to Prussia, but he does not let that get in the way of an argument about German identity, its roots and failings.

Some of this back-to-the-future thinking could be ascribed to an energetic Prussian lobby—that is, men of a certain age who were forced to leave their childhood homes after the war and who are now unusually emotional decision-makers. Take the rebuilding of the Hohenzollern palace—blown up by the east German communists—in the centre of Berlin. Costs for this controversial project (one architectural critic called it “a miserable hybrid of baroque and neofascist rationalism”) have risen to over €552m. But it is supported by the culture minister, Bernd Neumann (born in East Prussia, now Poland, in 1942), the head of the Goethe Institute, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann (who fled from Prussia aged five), and the head of the fundraising foundation, Wolf Lepenies (born in East Prussia in 1941).

Ultimately, however, the Prussian revival is not about the dreams of old men. It is about accepting that Prussian 19th-century reformers seemed to have asked questions which have become useful again: about the nature of the state, its responsibilities and duties, the weaknesses of the army and the connection between hard and soft power. Those reformers ended up trying to refashion royal subjects into dutiful but alert citizens. Christopher Clark, the Cambridge academic and great chronicler of Prussia, quotes a letter by the reformer Karl von Altenstein to the statesman Karl August Fuerst von Hardenberg, in 1807: “All our efforts are in vain if the system of education is against us, if it sends half-hearted officials into state service and brings forth lethargic citizens.” That was written as Prussia was being thumped by Napoleon, an elite army unable to stop the French revolutionary “nation at arms.” Germany is not a defeated nation at present but it sometimes behaves as if it is. It has one of the strongest economies in the world and will probably boast the best growth rate in Europe in 2011 but now, as then, it views itself as a society of half-hearted civil servants and lethargic citizens.

It is not just this lack of nerve and confidence that is
difficult for outsiders to understand. The notion that Prussian ideas could help the Germans sort themselves out is anathema to those who have grown up believing there is a straight line from early Prussian militarism through the first world war to Hitler in his Berlin bunker, a portrait of Frederick the Great hanging behind him. Surely, say the British and French in particular, Prussia is the encapsulation of furor Teutonicus. The French statesman Mirabeau noted in 1788 that Prussia was not “a state that had an army but an army that had a state” and concluded that “war was the national industry of Prussia.”

Even Germans were sceptical about the cannon fire, the square-bashing and the absolute hegemony of military and monarchical command; Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the 18th-century founder of modern classical studies, left Prussia because, he said, art and science could not flourish in “one great barracks.” In a particularly extravagant claim that was sadly never put into practice, he vowed that he would rather be “a circumcised Turk than a Prussian.” The British view of Prussia—though adjusted by some talented historians including Clark and Giles MacDonogh—is of a repressive place where recruits were whipped into shape for battles to come.

After the second world war, many Germans agreed. Influential historians argued that Nazism was not a freakish episode but rather a culmination of a Sonderweg (special path), taken by the Germans at least since the Prussian ascendancy over the German states; Hitler, though Austrian, was seen as an honorary Prussian, his movement “the active symptom of a chronic Prussian infirmity.” It was no surprise that the Prussian state was abolished in 1947; even less that East German communists expropriated the holdings of Prussian landowners, the Junkers, and blew up Prussian monuments.

So should we be worried about the trumpeting of Prussian achievements? The plan to rebuild the Hohenzollern palace? The return of the Prussian crown jewels to the Charlottenburg palace? New calls to rebury the Kaiser in Germany? Does Prussomania signify a subtle shift in Germany’s global positioning, away from soft power towards a slightly more martinet, harder-edged country? A new self-confidence stemming from its readiness to send its troops into combat again?

Not really—because the premise is wrong. Prussia was never solely a garrison state. True, the sprawling country of the Kaisers (1871-1918), from the Rhineland in the west to Silesia in the south and Königsberg (now Russia’s Kaliningrad) in the east, was held together by an army from its earliest days. When the 18th-century soldier-king, Friedrich Wilhelm I, boosted the army’s numbers from 30,000 to 80,000 it became the fourth-largest in Europe (though the country had only the 13th largest population). But Prussia spent much of its history avoiding war. Its soldiers stayed in barracks between 1815 and 1864—much to the annoyance of The Times, which in 1859 mocked Prussia for its absence from the battlefields of the Crimean war and northern Italy.

Prussia was not just about Pomeranian grenadiers and military discipline. It also developed a model of religious tolerance and philosophical discourse—it was the homeland of the thinker Immanuel Kant, the dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. The revival of Prussia as an idea rather than as a chunk of bloodstained European soil is what Germany is now embarking upon.

My favourite Prussian is Theodor Fontane, whose novels, such as Effi Briest (1895), subtly delineated Prussian society and contained hidden criticism of Bismarck. A qualified pharmacist, Fontane reinvented himself as a foreign correspondent, reporting from England and Scotland. He learned to write by copying Times leaders, as good a method as any, and covered Prussia’s wars against Denmark, Austria and France. It was not until he was 58 that he started to write novels. He was a questioning Prussian, an Anglophile, a shrewd observer of battlefields and an even better chronicler of how generational change breaks apart and re-forms a society. Last year I followed his trail across the east German state of Brandenburg. There I came across half a dozen members of the Prussian diaspora—their parents had fled the communists in 1945 and settled in West Germany—who had become wealthy (an eye surgeon, a gallery owner, a banker) and returned to buy back and restore their crumbling ancestral homes.

“What are Prussian values?” said one of them, a count, as he guided me around his porcelain collection. “I’ll tell you: hard work, respect for the aged, ambition and obedience. If our political class had even a fraction of this integrity, Germany wouldn’t be foundering like a drowning dog. The community needs backbone.” We took the stairs down to the main door, past family portraits barely hiding the cracked plaster. The house had been used as an old people’s home under the communists, eight pensioners to a room, and had fallen into neglect. My host ranted about Bolsheviks and Turks and, oddly, his barber. “Today’s politicians? I would string most of them up.”

The count later rang me as I was taking the train back to Berlin. “Tolerance,” he barked. “Forgot to tell you—that’s the cardinal Prussian virtue. Make a note of it!”

  1. August 4, 2013


    I found your article very interesting and informative. I have always held a respect for Prussian virtues.

  2. January 28, 2014


    Well-researched and interesting. I agree with those values. My family came to Australia from Prussia in the mid 1800′s and even after all that time, my father still taught me the Prussian values without calling them that. Rather , they were the values held by “strong” people as opposed to the “weakness” of the rest .Given the eroding of nearly all values and the non-existence, at least in this country, of such concepts as loyalty, family unity, honour and discipline (external at first when we are young so that it can morph into self-discipline as we get older), may these values flourish once again, no only in Germany, but in the rest of the world.

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Roger Boyes is Germany and east Europe correspondent of The Times. His book “To Prussia with Love,” will be published by Summerdale Press in April 

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