Christopher Clark: Cambridge Historian Says Prussia Gets a Bad Rap

Historians in the News

Christopher Clark's "The Iron Kingdom" is a 750+ page opus about a state that no longer exists. But, that didn't stop the German translation from cracking the 2007 bestseller lists. He talked about Prussia's appeal.

DW-WORLD.DE: Are you surprised that an academic book on Prussia could make the German bestseller lists?

Christopher Clark: I certainly didn't expect success on that level. I think it's a case of timing. The fall of the Berlin Wall and German re-unification have triggered a process of re-imagining the German past in general and Prussia in particular. So much of what was left of the old Prussian state was in former Communist East Germany, so it was kind of locked away. With the re-unification of Germany, it all became visible and got reconnected to the larger German national entity. That and the opening up of archives of the former East Germany prompted a rethink.

DW-WORLD.DE: Let's try to sum up your thesis. Prussia was a relatively enlightened, progressive state that inadvertently destroyed itself when it enlisted the force of German nationalism. Is that close?

Christopher Clark: That's exactly it. Nationalism was Prussia's downfall. In older historical literature, nationalism was seen as the culmination of Prussian history. Prussia's task in history had been to create the German nation. Just as we today tend to see the rise of the Third Reich in 1933 as the end of an era and explain how Germany got to that point, previous generations tried to explain how German history had got to 1871 and the creation of the German Empire. And the answer was that Prussia was the steering, shaping and sometimes manipulative power that would bring the German nation into existence. The emergence of the German nation is the thing that gives meaning to the whole history of Prussia.

That, in my view, is completely and utterly wrong. Throughout its history Prussia had been the most un-national state you can imagine, partly because it contained such large numbers of non-Germans, but also because the whole idea of its existence was that of the sovereign, monarchical state, interwoven with the idea of the sovereignty of law.

These were ideas that had nothing to do with the uprising of a national movement. Prussia responded very hostilely to early German nationalism because the Hohenzollern rulers rightly recognized that it would act like a kind of corrosive acid eating away at everything the Prussian state stood for.

It was only during the unstable period of the 1850s, 60s and 70s that Prussian statesmen, particularly Prussian Prime Minister and German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, began to imagine that they could tame nationalism. But that was something they failed to do....

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