on 19 October 2011
Another reviewer has expressed surprise that the author of this history of Prussia from 1600 to 1947 scarcely mentions the First World War; but this is to misunderstand the purpose of the book. This is not a narrative history of Prussia, let alone Germany. It is an attempt to explain some of the contradictions in Prussian history and politics; and why a state which so justly merited the title of `Iron Kingdom' ultimately collapsed and was expunged from the annals of history after the Second World War. In this, Christopher Clark succeeds brilliantly.
Who can honestly say they know anything about Prussia? When I first came across the place at school, I could not understand how there could be two states with such similar names - Prussia and Russia; and it took a long time to understand the relationship between historic Prussia and present-day Germany. Clark shows very well how this grew, but also how complex the relationship was; and how the dominance of Prussia within the German Empire between 1870 and 1914, together with the uncertain position of the Kaiser and the Army in the imperial constitution, was responsible for many of Germany's problems.
Clark tells some familiar stories - for example about Frederick the Great's invasion of Silesia and his tragic relationship with his friend Von Katte, and about the Captain of Kopenick - but he also explains some unfamiliar problems of German history. If you want to know about the conflict between the Calvinism of the State and the Lutheranism of some of the people in the seventeenth century; about Bismarck's `Kulturkampf' against the Catholic Church in the nineteenth; about the reasons why the Prussian Army collapsed so suddenly in the face of Napoleon but performed so spectacularly against Austria and France two generations later; about the role of women in the Prussian story; about why Bismarck was the architect of national insurance as well as of German unity; about why the First World War broke out, read on. These are only a sample of the topics discussed, by someone who clearly knows what he is talking about.
The book is not `dry' as one reviewer suggests: on the contrary it is a skilful interweaving of facts and anecdote, of people and socio-economic analysis. At the same time, I have to say that I did not find much in this book about the reasons for Germany's rise to economic and industrial leadership in Europe in the period before 1914, nor about her scientific, cultural and philosophic predominance; that I was not always swept along by the author's style; and the maps are not very good when viewed on the Kindle edition; but overall this is an illuminating survey of what is, in effect, the whole of Prussian history. The Iron Kingom is no more: only Brandenburg remains. Christopher Clark tells us why.
on 4 August 2013
There is very little I can add to the other reviews of this book except to reiterate that despite its length and detail, it is a very easy and compelling book to read and one not to be missed for those who are interested in modern European history. This is a history of Prussia and how the Margraves of Brandenburg came to be the Kings in Prussia and then Kings of Prussia, before finally becoming the German Emperors. This is most emphatically not a history of Germany nor a history of the Hohenzollerns but a history of the territory they ruled and how they increased both the physical and political and cultural importance of their territory. Reading this book does require prior knowledge of the history of the region and periods covered not least to fill in those gaps others have mentioned. There are no family trees in the paperback edition, so it might be a good idea to print out one from the internet to follow who is who (and have a detailed atlas of Germany handy as well, as the maps in the Penguin edition are not always easy to read.)
Two very minor typographical/proofreading errors in the Penguin edition which I bought: (these ought to be addressed to Penguin but it has proved beyond my deductive skills to find how to contact their history editors) p. 62, Frederick II the Great is the Great Elector's great-grandson, not his grandson (an error not repeated elsewhere); and p. 666, the name should read Arthur Seyss-Inquart, not Inquest. It says much about the quality of the book that these two very minor errors appear all the more glaring because of that quality.
on 11 December 2006
Rich in detail, Christopher Clark's new book Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947, is a welcome addition to the multitude of histories covering central Europe. Clark brings to life an era of Prussian history that is little known aside from the 19th and 20th century Kaisers and this expansive history is a fine piece of research.
Clark analyzes the transformation of the Prussian empire from its small Brandenburg origins to the dominant European power it became. The book covers all the major rulers from the Great Elector to Frederick the Great to Kaiser "Willy", and examines in detail the social, political, economic and military issues that played such a part in the development of Prussia. Where Clark especially shines is the detail of the empire's early years with the Great Elector and his two successors. In this era Prussia gained extensive swaths of territory through alliances and marriages, even as it went through internal and religious strife at home. Clark has clearly done his homework, scouring through dusty archives and examining in multiple languages the papers of the empire, most notably the Political Testaments (a letter of sorts to the next King) of the early Kings. Clark examines the successes of the Prussian military machine, with its strength of the canton regimental system, and the growth of the civil service and judiciary. The political maneuverings between Prussia, France, England, Russia, and Austria make for fascinating reading, with Prussia somehow managing to come out ahead more often than not (conversely, Austria managed to always find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory).
This is a large book, and takes a while to get through. Clark's writing style is fairly fluid, rich with detail, but the structure of the book is more thematic as opposed to linear, at least in the early chapters. For example, the clash of Lutheranism and Calvanism in the early empire spanned many decades and three different rulers, with the text jumping back and forth between the years. After a few chapters, it's hard to keep focus on who is ruling and what territory is gained, but it does get better as you get deeper into the book. This however, is a minor fault and may be more based on my writing preferences rather than any fault of the author's. All in all though, it is a very solid book and a nice addition to your history shelf. Recommended.
on 30 August 2006
It's not very often that you read something which really changes your thinking about a major area of History. This book does. It shows that there is a far greater richness and diversity to the Prussian story than the hoary military stereotypes would have us believe. This book is superb on Prussia in the Napoleonic period, and also on the unification era. Clark is very good also at his pen-portraits - Hegel, the captain of Koepenick, Georg Grosz et al. Above all this is a book which encourages us to see Prussia as distinct from Germany, and is a fine attempt to rehabilitate an entity tarred with a perhaps unjustified degree of opprobrium after 1945.
on 5 February 2014
I believe this is not just a good book; it is also an important book. I would like everyone to read it, but I recognize that it might not live up to some people's expectations. That is why I think it is important to introduce it as comprehensively as possible so that readers will not give up disappointed midway through and miss a truly rewarding experience.
The Iron Kingdom is not a military history, although a theme is militarism which perhaps justifies its bellicose cover, if you want to read about battles then you will not find much joy here. The battle of Sedan is given a single sentence, Koeniggratz not much more and Waterloo is almost an afterthought. The author does not underestimate the importance of these events; it is merely that he is more interested in the causes and consequences than the blood and heroism. Prussian military tactics in the seven year war, the use of the needle gun and rifled cannon are described in much greater detail, but only because they reflect elements of Prussian civil and political culture. Jena is also described in some detail but not because it was great clash of armies but rather because it represented a culture shock which changed the way the Prussians saw themselves and organised their state.
So what is the Iron Kingdom and what makes it so good? I can only really give a personal perspective and so I need to discuss a little of my own interests and biases.
I am British, I am interested in what makes the British - British, what makes the English - English, what makes the Welsh - Welsh, the Scots - Scots and the Irish - Irish. I have been interested in this ever since I discovered that no one could give me a straight answer to any of these questions other than `history'. After many years of trying to find out what the shared story was that makes one nation different from any other I realised that I would never, ever know.
Part of the problem is that the terms British, English, Welsh, Irish and Scots have different meanings for different people and there is little real common ground. Indeed it would be difficult to find any group of 5 people who didn't have 5 different opinions. Another part of the problem is the perennial statement `you cannot properly understand x without understanding y'. For example, `you cannot properly understand the Gettysburg Address without understanding the French Revolution' or `you cannot properly understand Alfred the Great without understanding Charlemagne'. While these kinds of statement are invariably true, they are supremely unhelpful as there are limitless variations and they follow on from each other so that the end result is that in truth you can never `properly' understand even the simplest historical event.
The reason I think the Iron Kingdom is such a great book is that while it does not explain what British is, it is one of the most helpful books I have ever read in this respect during my long (and continuing) search for an answer. I suspect it would be similarly useful for anyone wanting to know what it means to be French, Italian, Russian, Greek or American. This book addresses the very complex differences between `Nation' and `State' and it shows how both can be invented and reinvented. As a bonus it also helps to explain how concepts such as `People' (in German `Volk') and `Oligarchy' (in Prussian terms the `Estate') fit in with State and Nation.
From a British perspective the Iron Kingdom has an obvious parochial interest. We are obviously interested in the First and Second World Wars and the card board cut out villains (from a British perspective) are militaristic Germans who committed all sorts of terrible deeds with ruthless high tech efficiency, until stopped by our plucky British Tommies with the help of some ingenious inventions knocked up in their garden sheds. No doubt the Russians, French, Americans and other allied nations have similar comfortable stereotypes to fall back on when they consider the Second World War. It does not take much heart searching to realise this is simplistic drivel and the obvious response is `you cannot understand the Second World War properly without understanding Prussia'.
What the Iron Kingdom does (quite brilliantly) is lead the reader by the hand through Prussian history from the 30 year war to the rise of Hitler and fascism. By the time the reader reaches History's most iconic villain we are more than happy to believe that while Prussian militarism is complicit in the rise of this monster and his version of Prussianess was used as a varnish to cover ugly cracks in the Fascist veneer, Prussian culture and traditions were in many ways diametrically opposed to everything Nazism stood for. We (readers) have no trouble believing that far from being the main instigators of Nazi crimes, Prussians were relatively (compared to other German regions) minor players in the worst atrocities and in fact were the leaders in the resistance to Hitler. It was Hitler who administered the coup de gras on the Prussian state which had been left hanging after World War One and which was dismembered (already dead) by the allies in 1947.
The role of Prussia and Prussianess was complex and clearly multifaceted in the Second World War (to say the least), but in the First World War the central role of Prussia as (from a British perspective) the villain is more clear cut. Prussia was far more the enemy than Germany, indeed what was meant by Germany in 1914 is far from clear. The states forced into unwilling federalisation by Prussia in 1866 did not form a unitary federal state as we would know it today. They were far better described as reluctant satellites of Prussia. The only real National identity was that forced on this loose grouping in the shape of the Prussian King whose Grandfather had uncomfortably adopted the title German Kaiser on the basis of military success against a `common' enemy (France). So if Prussia was the enemy who exactly were the Prussians? That is what Christopher Clark attempts to explains in the Iron Kingdom, I am not for a moment saying that he succeeds, but I would suggest he comes as close as it is possible to get.
I discovered some time ago that we owe much of what we consider as the British democratic system to a group of Czechs throwing some Habsburg dignitaries out of an upper story window in Prague. If you want to read more about the 30 year war I would suggest reading Peter Wilson's `Europe's Tragedy'. Without the 30 year war in central Europe there would probably not have been an English civil war and the war of the 3 kingdoms would not have developed from it. The massacre at Drogheda would certainly never have happened - at least not with the battle cry `Remember Magdeberg' and so England's relationship with Ireland would be very different. This is just one of those examples of the chain of history that is exposed with the phrase `you cannot properly understand x without understanding y'. As Christopher Clark makes clear, Prussian history is even more fundamentally linked to this distant act of defenestration.
The Hohenzollern lands in Brandenburg and elsewhere in Northern Europe were used as the battleground between the Hapsburg Catholics and their Danish, French and Swedish enemies. Strangely (given the subsequent reputation of Prussia) all that the Hohenzollerns really wanted was to be left in peace. Certainly as Calvinist rulers of a largely Lutheran state they were not immune to the religious tensions of the age, but for the same reason they were relatively tolerant of religious dissent and certainly would not voluntarily have gone to war in support of Protestantism or the Habsburg monarchy.
As a result of this war Frederick William (the man who would become known as the Great Elector) was brought up and educated in Calvinist, liberal Holland. Because of this war he realized the importance of a strong standing Army. Not for conquest, but as a deterrent. For the Hohenzollerns an Army became an end in itself. Their use of regional regiments with local recruitment became a way of giving their territories an identity (and critically an identity that they could link to their own family interests).
Joining their territories in Ducal Prussia to Brandenburg was an obvious Hohenzollern objective, but it is doubtful that this would have been possible without the state structure they created to support their Army. Seen in this light invasion of Silesia was almost inevitable and the Seven Year war can be seen as an extension of the 30 Year war: the resulting tension with Austria leading inevitably to the war of 1866 and Bismarck's `unification' of small Germany.
There was clearly a need to stamp an identity on the new Germany, from the Prussian stand point what better way than the tried and tested route of militarism. The war with France gave Germany a provisional identity but the Army was too clearly a creature of Prussia. Is it any wonder the new Germany expended so much energy in development of a Navy. However, who can blame Britain for seeing it as a provocation.
If the Defenestration of Prague can therefore be seen as the cause of Prussian militarism and indirectly the rise of Fascism, then it also can be seen as the cause of the Prussian enlightenment, of the works of Kant and Hegel and the scientific breakthroughs that were supported by the Prussian state. The story of Prussia is certainly not simple and I certainly do not `properly' understand Prussia, but I now feel that I have an educated lack of understanding thanks to Christopher Clark and his excellent book.
on 21 June 2013
History at its best.
The traditional view of the monocle bearing, militaristic, authoritarian state of Prussia is one that has lingered long in the memory. Indeed, the very name of Prussia conjures up images of Teutonic efficiency and aggressive militarism.
Thankfully, Professor Clark holes this idea below the waterline.
The book take us through a journey from Prussia as a European backwater, to its rise through shrewd power play and dynastic intrigue. We see Prussia staring into the abyss as Napoleon blazes a trail through Europe, only to rise again. We see a traditional Prussian anxiety of facing a two front war against France and Russia, magnified into German policy, and above all, we see the tragedy of the Prussian core - the lack of civilian control over the military.
on 9 December 2014
I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. Anybody who thinks the subject matter might be tedious is in for a big surprise. Told with gusto, superior knowledge and a flair for narrative. It is by far the best book on Prussia and its history. Especially good on Pietism - again not lecturingly told, just very very informed and brilliantly written. Buy it! Read it!
on 24 November 2006
I heard many good things about this book before I got it, and was pleased to find that they were all true. This is a fascinating journey through some 350 years of Prussian history, from the early days of the Mark Brandenburg to post-WWII. There is a lot here, and as others have said it will probably take you a while to get through it, not because the writing is difficult (it is anything but, being admirably clear and flowing) but because of its size (indeed, until I read this book I did not realise how big asubject this was). But it is well worth the journey.
Even on the rare occasions that I feared the author was getting off the main subject, e.g. his detailed treatment of the Pietist religious movement in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, I came out feeling that this was all highly relevant to the main theme. Indeed, I now feel I understand much better the reasons for and effects of that peculiar blend of insecurity and confidence, indeed at times arrogance, that drove much of Prussian history and was typified in the person of Wilhelm II. At the same time it shows clearly that there was never a uniformity of Prussion thought and culture, and that there were always elements that were at odds with what became perceived as rigid Prussian stereotypes.
on 24 November 2006
It's taken me a couple of months to battle my way through this book (time constraints, not because it is boring!), but it's been worth every penny spent on it. Christopher Clark is a very able writer, putting across 350 of history in an engaging, interesting manner. When I ordered the book, I was expecting history mostly of the military kind, in the with the popular view of Prussia as mostly a military power. Actually, the author spends a lot more time on the economic, political and social aspects of Prussia, which really broadened my understanding of it. I didn't know - for example - that Prussia sat out most of the 18th century wars after Fredrick the Great. This is apparently why the Prussians were so humiliated by Napoleon.
Some areas received more focus than others, such as Fredrick the Great, the Napoleonic Wars, the frequent near-revolutions amongst the various working class and agrarian workers during the 19th century, the Jews, Catholics and Poles living in Prussia. You get a real sense of the diversity of Prussia beyond the stereotypical view of the toffee-nosed Junker or precise goose-stepping soldiers. The `birth' of Prussia itself is fascinating - it was almost wiped out during the religious wars of the 17th century, the land being repeatedly invaded and occupied by various powers. The Prussian enlightenment also gets a good section on it, along with Bismarck's political machinations.
There is little on WW1 or WWII, but I think this is rightly so. What happened during the wars was experienced by all Germany. In all, this was a terrific buy, and the only surprising me is that no-one has written a book about Prussian history before.
on 8 January 2008
I've given this work 4 stars with a few reservations.
On the plus side, it is a well-written, expertly researched masterpiece of modern history in a classic style (that is to say, it's honestly intellectual, scientifically rigorous and lacking in patronising gimmickery - hooray).
And the story of Prussia is very well told, in a weave that includes rulers, soldiers, politicians, philosophers, scientists, churchmen, and even the ordinary citizen, in buckets.
It is enormously informative as a result, and left me better educated, which should be the point, but...
Well, it's about those bizarre gaps that have irritated at least one other reviewer.
The first one occurs right at the start, when the author asks how it was that Prussia came to be at all, all things considered. It's a good question, and Mr Clark properly weighs some of the considerations. Then he forgets all about it, and starts his narrative proper with a fait accompli. Bizarre.
There is at least one other example of this in the text, before reaching the 20th Century and the rather odd non-mention of the Great War, although the author has by this time already skimmed over several important military events, like the Franco-Prussian War (believe it or not). It's rather as if the book is running out of steam.
Yet, I can understand that Mr Clark might be trying to concentrate exclusively on Prussian history - perhaps German Imperial history is not so important to him, although Bismark nevertheless IS, while William II is not. Nor is the Weimar Republic, nor Hitler, nor the Federal German Republic, other than in terms of a few reflections and musings.
SO you'll need to take this work as a very particular spotlamp, and have your hands on some other works to fill in the shadows (Massie's Dreadnought, for example).