Book Review: Iron Kingdom

Iron Kingdom
The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947
by Christopher Clark
Belknap Press, 2009

If countries were traded on the stock exchange, then Prussia would be a very volatile stock. From its modest beginnings as the Electorate of Brandenburg, it grew into a European Great Power. Surrounded by enemies on all sides, it was almost extinguished during the Seven Years’ War. But it survived that threat, and then it also survived Napoleon, until it finally managed to unify non-Habsburg Germany into a single nation.

Prussia’s fall would be much swifter than its rise. After Germany’s defeat in World War II, the Allies redrew the map. Blaming Prussian militarism for the apocalyptic war in Europe, they eliminated Prussia as a political entity. After German reunification, the territory that used to be Brandenburg-Prussia is now back to just Brandenburg.

Christopher Clark has set out to chronicle Prussia’s centuries-long rise, from a sleepy electorate on the edges of German civilization, to the dominant power on the European continent. In the introduction, he acknowledges the fierce debate that has raged in Germany on the Prussian legacy. Did Prussia stand for toleration and progress, or did it hold Germany back from the liberalization that swept over the rest of the continent? Was Prussia to blame for putting Germany on the special path (Sonderweg) that would end in disaster during World War II? “As an Australian historian writing in twenty-first-century Cambridge,” Clark presents both the liberal and the authoritarian streak in Prussian history.

Modest beginnings

Like the other European Great Powers, Prussia expanded its territory through warfare and marriage. Diplomacy in those days often involved marriage, for territories were transferred through hereditary succession. Inbreeding is what led to the proliferation of Mad German Dukes, and some of the genealogical relationships in this book are very strange indeed. The Elector Joachim Frederick, for example, married his son’s younger sister-in-law, which made her the mother-in-law of her elder sister. One thing that set Brandenburg apart from other German states was that it had an indivisible inheritance. Although some electors proposed to partition the territory among their offspring, the threat never came to fruition, and Brandenburg remained intact.

During the Thirty Years War, Brandenburg’s territory was occupied by Sweden and the population was cut down by disease. The adolescent Prince Frederick William was sent to safety in the Dutch Republic. When he became the (Great) Elector, he would model his army after the Dutch and seek to enrich Brandenburg-Prussia by developing a merchant marine. With its small but well-trained army, Brandenburg-Prussia became a sought-after ally in the frequent European wars. By negotiating the best deal that it could with the side that was most likely to win, the Electorate could acquire more territory. The alliances were based primarily on calculations of the potential gain. Clark refers to it as a “neural net” that weighed all the factors and switched sides when the opposition proved more advantageous to its territorial interests.

As early as 1648, Brandenburg-Prussia had already become the second largest German state, surpassing Saxony and trailing only Austria. France was looking for a medium-sized power to use against Austria, so it made sure that Brandenburg-Prussia was substantially enlarged at the Peace of Westphalia. This set the stage for the next two centuries of Austro-Prussian rivalry for leadership within Germany.

Fredericks and Williams

Frederick William, the Great Elector, had been the first Hohenzollern to carry a dual name. From then on, they would all be named either Frederick or William or some combination thereof. Then they restarted the numbering when the Electors of Brandenburg turned into Kings in/of Prussia. Everyone of importance, it seems, was named Frederick/William I/II/III, possibly the Great (Elector). This situation is very confusing.

Beyond just his name, the Great Elector bequeathed a tradition of devotion to the nation, working “harder than a secretary.” The soon-to-be-Prussian Kings did not plan on turning into dissolute royalty like many other German princes, although some of them came close. Frederick William I (King) and II (Elector), for example, was as raucous as a frat boy. Such are the perils of absolute monarchy. But whatever their personal behavior, the succession of Fredericks and Williams treated Prussia as a long-term family project. Each monarch left a testament politique for his successor, assessing the European situation and giving advice for how to further Prussia’s long-term goals.

Frederick the Great

It was, of course, Frederick II, the Great, who made Prussia into a Great Power. First, he had to secure Prussia’s second-place status within Germany. Clark posits an alternate history in which Saxony-Poland, then ruled in personal union, became contiguous by acquiring a strip of Prussian territory to link its two parts. Of course, history turned out the other way, as Frederick II seized the rich province of Silesia from Austria. But as Frederick wrote in his 1752 testament, “Never will Austria get over the pain of Silesia’s loss,” and he had to keep fighting to keep Silesia. In each war, he remained “focused on a specific, circumscribed objective … not to be seduced by allies or good fortune into gambling for higher stakes.” Despite Frederick’s reputation as a military genius, he jumped in and out of wars — as long as he could keep Silesia. Prussia actually remained at peace for a larger fraction of Frederick’s rule than most of the other countries of Europe.

The Seven Years’ War was much tougher going. Frederick was so worried about Russia that he switched sides and allied with Britain. Prussia was subsequently attacked by not one, not two, but three of the Great Powers, and it took all of Frederick’s military genius just to fight to a draw. Clark moves through Frederick’s battles at dizzying speed, probably a wise decision due to the back-and-forth nature of the struggle. Interestingly, Clark does not refer to Prussia’s salvation using the traditional term, the “Miracle of the House of Brandenburg.” He is more impressed by how Frederick kept his enemies off-balance, buying enough time for their inherent conflicts to reemerge and for the coalition to fall apart.

Frederick may have won only half his battles, but Silesia remained a part of Prussia. Compared to how the other powers fared, Prussia did quite well out of the war. The Elector of Bavaria was chased out of his lands. Saxony switched sides “in time to stand against Prussia on the losing side at Hohenfriedeberg.” And France? The Diplomatic Revolution turned out not to be the triumph that it seemed to be at the time. The French monarchy may have turned to Austria, but the French people didn’t. Austria’s gains and Prussia’s victories over French troops were both felt as humiliations to France’s prestige. What did they switch sides for, after all? This resentment would have far-reaching consequences.

The abject Austrian surrender in the bloodless “Potato War” shows how far Prussia’s standing had risen. Frederick had demanded the duchies of Ansbach and Bayreuth in return for his acquiescence to an Austrian takeover of Bavaria. (The distant relative who had inherited Bavaria was willing to swap it for the Austrian Netherlands.) Frederick marched his troops into Bohemia to push his demands. Maria Theresa backed down rather than fight. Under French and Russian mediation, she gave up Bavaria and also allowed Prussia to take the two duchies.

Authoritarianism and liberalism

It was the Junker officer class that enabled Frederick’s grand military campaigns. Clark describes Ernst von Barsewisch’s harrowing experience at the Battle of Hochkirch, as officers fell all around him. Normally sparing with block quotes, Clark inserts a whole paragraph from von Barsewisch’s memoirs, and then remarks, “It was through this collective sacrifice of its young men — note the presence of three von Hertzberg brothers on one section of the Prussian line! — that the Junker nobility earned its special place within the Frederician state.”

Clark also offers a counterpoint to the traditional view of the Junker domination of the Prussian countryside. He notes that peasants in Prussia were often better off than peasants elsewhere in Europe, and describes a peasant revolt in which a friendly burgher helped them write an appeal to higher government. He does not give the result of the appeal, however, and mentions that the subject of peasant resistance to Junker domination has not been well-studied.

Similarly, Clark describes the beginnings of Prussian “social welfare policy.” Frederick the Great made provisions to care for invalided soldiers, and jobs in state agencies were often reserved for veterans. Clark is particularly impressed by Frederick’s dramatic actions to relieve famines. Not only did he dig into his own pockets to cut excise taxes on grain imports, but in 1771-1772, he authorized a release of grain from the military magazines to alleviate a famine that had struck throughout Europe. With these historical precedents for using the power of the state to relieve suffering, it is not surprising that Bismarck would later invent the modern social welfare state.

However, the author is not so impressed by the Miller Arnold affair, which became a “public sensation” across Europe. A manorial court had evicted the miller from his lands, whereupon he appealed to his sovereign for relief. Frederick II was “furious at what he saw as the manipulations of a provincial oligarchy,” and fought his own judicial establishment to secure redress. Clark cautions, though, that this can also be read as an example of royal interference with the judicial system. However well-intentioned Frederick may have been, the incident highlighted a system that depended on men rather than on rules.

Clark misses a chance to tell the end of the story. The Arnold verdict is overturned after Frederick II’s death, and Frederick William II ends up paying the judges to settle the case. Contemporary public opinion also had far fewer reservations over Frederick’s actions. Other sources note that the Prussian King was hailed in revolutionary France for his role in protecting the powerless. Indeed, Prussia saw itself as a liberalizing force in Europe, and initially welcomed the French Revolution as an opportunity to pry apart the Franco-Austrian alliance.

Prussia may have been an army that happened to be quartered in a state, but Clark points out that the numbers are misleading. Although the ratio of army strength to population approached those of highly-militarized societies like East Germany during the Cold War, the percentage of Prussians serving in the army was actually not that high. The numbers were bulked up by the large number of foreign soldiers in the army.

Prussian liberalism

Frederick II scaled back the use of judicial torture three days into his reign, and abolished it entirely 14 years later. Prussia had a highly progressive system of primary education, one that eschewed corporal punishment in favor of rational persuasion. In 1816-35, England and Wales executed 16 times as many people as Prussia did, even though they had similar populations. Britain’s “bloody code” executed many for property crimes, while Prussia tended to limit the use of capital punishment to homicide and other violent crimes. The author also points out that had Prussia done to Poland what Britain did to Ireland, we would now be shuddering at the proto-Nazi implications of starving an undesired native population.

The fact that Prussia had an established church meant that the state was involved in cracking down on heterodoxy, like the Old Lutheran movement. But at the same time, Prussia also fought a newly-ultramontane Catholic Church over the product of mixed Catholic-Protestant marriages. The Catholic Church insisted that the children of mixed marriages be brought up Catholic, while Prussian law “stipulated (in the spirit of inter-confessional parity) that in such marriages the children were to be educated in the religion of the father.” Protestant Prussia was bi-confessional Lutheran/Calvinist, and had long had to juggle the demands of different religions.

Clark also notes that the ultramontane movement was behind the purging of local dialect from the Rhenish mass. Uniformity in Catholic liturgy is a fairly recent affair! The Rhinelanders referred to their new masters in Berlin as “Lithuanians.” If you’re living near the western border of Germany and you were taken over by the easternmost German state, I suppose Prussia seemed like Lithuania to you.

Prussia was in the unusual position of being officially bi-confessional: Lutheran and Calvinist. It was also the most powerful Protestant state in Germany, counterbalancing Catholic Austria, so it played an important role in disputes within the Holy Roman Empire. The book traces the back-and-forth of Prussian tolerance of Judaism, at times enlightened, at other times regressing. It discusses economic policies, the administration of newly-acquired lands in Poland and Western Germany, and developments in arts and in society. There is even a list of the various societies that one could join in Berlin during the Age of Enlightenment.


Despite some liberal tendencies, the Prussian monarchy fought against the Revolutions of 1848. Yet the revolutionaries in Frankfurt still offered the crown of a united Germany to the Prussian king. He was, after all, the natural candidate to lead Germany, and the Hohenzollerns were more adaptable than the Habsburgs. Witness the strange sight of Frederick William IV riding in the streets of Berlin, delivering speeches extemporaneously to the crowds, escorted by just one guardsman bearing the German tricolor. If the revolutionaries had been better organized, perhaps history might have turned out differently.

In the end, it came to nothing, and Prussia wound up supplying troops to put down revolts in other German states. But the princes weren’t grateful enough to hand the country over to Prussian leadership. After rejecting the people’s crown proffered by the Frankfurt Parliament, Prussia attempted to arrange German unification with itself at its head. But this came to nothing, as the very same German princes who owed their thrones to Prussian intervention preferred to side with Austria. Marx and Engels noted that “absolutist Austria was closer to them than a power whose ability to be absolutist was no greater than its desire to be liberal."

Clark describes the ticking time bomb of the Prussian national debt, which forced a national assembly to be called in 1847 to raise funds for railroad expansion. But this chronology seems a bit too neat to me. Much of Europe was afire in 1848. If it hadn’t been the debt, then it would’ve been something else.

Chapter 15: Four Wars

Whole books have been written about the Wars of German Unification. Clark gives them one chapter. He seems to be writing to a page quota for each decade of Prussian history — perhaps not a bad idea, as history is lived in real-time and not just in a series of crises. The wars were also very much unexpected. In 1860, the Times of London described Prussia as a country that was “present in Congresses, but absent in battles."

Clark writes that “The details of the Schleswig-Holstein controversy have always been taxing to follow – the more so as nearly everyone involved in it was called either Frederick or Christian.” Not so different from the Fredericks and Williams of the Maison de Hohenzollern!

After the brief treatment of the campaigns of Frederick the Great and the Napoleonic Wars, it is surprising to find a detailed description of the Wars of German Unification. Indeed, the author spends a great deal of time describing the reasons for Prussia’s victory over Austria. The breech-loading needle gun, for example, was not adopted by other states due to their preference for shock tactics. In contrast, Prussia trained its troops in marksmanship and required its troops to keep a shooting log, “reap[ing] the rewards of Prussia’s exemplary education system.” This is actually quite an important point, as the German Army would later become famous in the military literature for granting more discretion to its junior officers than the armies of more liberal nations.

At the same time, it is still surprising how quickly Prussia and Austria went to war with each other. Clearly the tensions were boiling over by that point. It would’ve been nice to get some more insight into how Austria made the decision to go to war against Prussia.

Twentieth century

Clark finds Prussian militarism just before the Great War to be overstated. After all, France was also a militarized society from 1870-1914. He also notes that the expansion of the German navy was very popular in Germany, precisely because it was a German navy and not a Prussian one. The Frankfurt Parliament had called for a navy in the war with Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein, and the North German Confederation also had a navy. William II was not just trying to emulate his British cousins, but he actually had popular support for the expansion of the German Navy.

As for the notion that the onset of the Great War was welcomed by the populace, Clark is unconvinced. The German peace movement was actually stronger than in other countries, as befitting a country that had a strong social democratic movement. There was an enormous peace rally of 250,000 people in Treptow Park during the Moroccan Crisis. Even in August 1914, “the mood … was muted, ambivalent and in some places fearful."

Interestingly, the author blames Hindenburg for being opportunistic, unprincipled, and disloyal, as he turned his allegiance from William II to Otto Braun, the SPD Minister-President of Prussia. In most histories, Luddendorf gets more of the blame, perhaps because of his later association with the Nazi Party. But the way that Clark tells the story, Hindenburg had usurped much of the Kaiser’s authority and was essentially running the country by the end of the war. On the other hand, postwar Germany came very close to the communist revolution that Karl Marx had predicted. Perhaps Marx wasn’t so mistaken after all. The revolution was foiled by Hindenburg, who preferred the SPD to the more radical alternative.

Prussia was finally dissolved by the Allies after World War II, an event that Clark uses to both open and close the book. Interestingly, it was the Western Allies who were most eager to do it. Stalin wanted to use Prussia to control a unified Germany. Soviet propaganda had appealed to dissenting elements in the German Army, drawing on the examples of Prussians who had resigned their commissions and entered the tsar’s service in order to fight the hated French during the War of 1812. (Prussia had been compelled to ally itself with France.) Russia and Prussia had centuries of history with each other, and Stalin, after all, used the Soviet machinery to pursue longstanding Russian ambitions. The Western Allies did not distinguish between Nazism and Prussianism. Ironically, the Nazis had also been planning the dismemberment of Prussia — there was no room for historical borders in the Nazi game plan.


Clark claims not to take sides on the dispute over Prussia’s legacy. He describes actions for which Prussia was acclaimed, but finds reasons to be wary. He describes terrible events like the extermination of the Herrero, but tempers it by pointing out that the colonial governor and the chancellor were both against it. The independence of the German military command structure meant that the local civilian authorities could not impose their will on military commanders. They had to first secure an imperial order to countermand the military action, but by the time they got one from Berlin, the Herrero had already been wiped out.

At the same time, just by presenting both points of view, the author introduces Anglo-American readers to a novel point of view. Perhaps Clark can approach Prussia with greater equanimity because he hails from Australia. It’s still quite common for British works to be quite savage when it comes to Prussia.

Clark’s wide-ranging history of Prussia expands our viewpoint beyond the caricature of the monocled officer wearing a pickelhaube. Prussia was a powerful state, but it was a state like many others. There were conservative elements and liberal elements, reactionary monarchs and progressive monarchs. Prussia has played a large role in the history of Germany and of Europe, and its contributions were by no means one-sided.