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5.0 out of 5 stars History with a truly important story to tell, 5 Feb 2014
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This review is from: Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (Kindle Edition)
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.
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