Germany’s Prussian Ambition
After World War II, Winston Churchill condemned the German state of Prussia as “the root of all evil.”
So why is there a heartfelt effort in Germany today to bring back Prussia? Prussia directly connects Germany with its imperial past of power and conquest!
The victorious Allies, by means of the “Potsdam Declaration,” agreed on the removal of the German population from a part of the area known as Prussia. Much of this land was to be given to Poland and the Soviet Union. Two years later, in 1947, the Allies passed a law that permanently banned Prussia from ever existing, branding it the warmongering heart of Germany.
Still, a dream of a resurgent Prussian state has captured the hearts and minds of some in Germany today. This dream found a voice in the words of Alwin Ziel, Brandenburg’s social affairs minister, when he suggested in February that the proposed merger of the city-state of Berlin and the state of Brandenburg be called Prussia.
Germans still proudly remember and admire their past. This includes a growing number of liberal intellectuals, aristocrats and royalty who have joined forces in support of Prussia’s rebirth (Guardian, Feb. 23).
But given the law passed in 1947, can Prussia legally be reestablished? “The fact that the Allies dissolved the state of Prussia does not mean that one of Germany’s present-day states cannot bear the same name,” said Detlef Merten, professor of public law at the German University of Administrative Sciences in Speyer (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Feb. 17; emphasis mine throughout). He added, “Germany is indeed sovereign in the matter since only those states that are part of the Federal Republic of Germany are being dealt with here” (ibid.).
“Prussia is a project, not a historical relic or even a joke,” said Tilman Mayer, a professor of political science at the University of Bonn, adding that “only fatalists will argue that Prussia is history” (ibid., Feb. 28).
Revitalization of great Prussian cities, palaces and buildings continue to rekindle the dream of the rebirth of past Prussian glory in a modern Germany. Many Germans are looking to the greatness of their past to lead their future!
Virtues of the Imperial Past
Germans increasingly refuse to feel continuing shame over their history. This fact was brought to prominence last year, when the German government officially named it Prussian Year 2001.
German President Johannes Rau defended all that was good with Prussia during the celebrations: “We should use this opportunity and then we can recognize that there are traditions and attitudes that are worth highlighting and rediscovering: tolerance, reform, selflessness and modesty, the nation-state and law and order” (Independent, Jan. 14, 2001).
Prussian Year 2001 was formally celebrated throughout Germany with a series of exhibitions and events commemorating Prussia’s influence upon Germany and the world. Over 100 museums and cultural organizations throughout the former Prussian region took part.
These celebrations confirmed one truism: “[T]he Germans are at least no longer afraid of Prussia” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Feb. 20).
Eberhard Diepgen, former mayor of Berlin, expressed amazement at how the Prussian state was ever permitted to descend into disregard. “I am happy that Prussian Year 2001 will remind us of these fruitful traditions in our history,” he said. He added that the knowledge of those traditions “can be taken as a basis for the future of Europe” (Telegraph, Dec. 31, 2000).
Mr. Mayer said, “We need Prussia to unite Germany. We need Prussia as a shining name to inspire great achievements in Germany. We need Prussia as a provocation to trigger action” (op. cit.). One might ask, what action will be triggered if Prussian idealism takes over?
Looking to Frederick
The city of Potsdam was known as the “pearl of Prussia.” Devastated by World War ii and left inert by the forced seclusion of the Cold War, it has recently undergone great change, swiftly acquiring a reputation as one of Germany’s most attractive cities. After German reunification in 1990, Potsdam became the capital of the state of Brandenburg. A stunning reminder of its great imperial past is reflected in two elegant palaces which reside there, both built in the late 1700s by Prussia’s most recognized king, Frederick the Great.
Frederick, who reigned from 1740 to 1786, is remembered in Germany to this day. Adolf Hitler paid his respects to Frederick at his grave in Potsdam in 1933, and there declared the beginning of the Third Reich. When the collapse of the Reich was hastened by the advancing Russian army, the Nazi government protected Frederick’s remains by exhuming his body and moving it to western Germany.
Nazis and other right-wing extremists hail Frederick “as a cult figure because of his martial accomplishments” (Martin A. Lee, The Beast Reawakens, pp. 282-283). This “fierce Prussian warrior” was known as a frequent invader of foreign lands.
In 1991, only one year after Germany reunited East and West, Frederick was honored by a reburial at his beloved Sans Souci Palace near Potsdam—with over 80,000 in attendance, including then Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Several newspapers acknowledged the immediate reaction in Europe: fear. Troubled hearts saw this national reverence as an inner-stirring for Germany to return to its roots of military greatness.
Remember the Good
Most Germans only want to remember the good that the Prussians are responsible for: They emancipated the local Jewish population in 1812; serfdom was eliminated; immigration was encouraged; the arts and sciences and the introduction of compulsory education were sponsored and administered by the Prussian state.
Warmly evoked by countless Germans is the belief in Prussian virtues: modesty, discipline, self-control, punctuality, thriftiness, state service and a hard-working attitude. These virtues are seen as the catalyst of Prussia’s economic power.
However, to most Europeans, Prussia is generally remembered for its militarism, arrogance and, especially, its expansionism.
“The anti-Prussian sentiment that survives in western and southern Germany is of no consequence and is declining by the decade,” wrote Wolf Jobst Siedler, a distinguished German journalist (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Feb. 17). Siedler added, “European irritation can be ignored, too, just as European unease was ignored when the two German states—East and West Germany—were reunited” (ibid.).
Alexandra Richie, Oxford historian, points out in her book Faust’s Metropolis that European irritation should not be so easily ignored. “The fact that German unification was achieved without violence was a political miracle, but experience shows that disruption often emerges later and in unexpected ways.”
How Did Prussia Rule?
In 1862, Count Otto von Bismarck became both prime minister and foreign minister of Prussia. He realized that to lead the German unification effort and attain world leadership status for Germany, Prussia would need both a potent army and effective diplomatic skills. In this he had the willing support of King Wilhelm i.
In 1866, the Prussian army crushed Austria in only seven weeks, thus forming the North German Union. A few years later, Prussia swiftly defeated the incompetent emperor of France, Napoleon iii, setting the stage for the highly anticipated unification of Germany in 1871. The German Empire, or Second Reich, was formed.
The newly crowned kaiser (emperor of Germany)—Wilhelm i—made Otto von Bismarck, his longtime champion advocate, Germany’s first chancellor.
During a constitutional crisis over army reforms, Bismarck was resolute regarding Prussia’s authority: “The position of Prussia in Germany will be decided not by its liberalism but by its power. … [N]ot through speeches and majority decisions are the great questions of the day decided … but by iron and blood” (Otto Pflanze, Bismarck and the Development of Germany, vol. 1). Bismarck insisted that the German Empire have a dominant role in European affairs and unhindered ability to colonize throughout the world.
Wilhelm i’s grandson—known to be vociferous and uncaring—attempted to persuade his dying grandfather to abdicate and give him the throne instead of giving it to his son Friederich. Wilhelm i refused. But after Wilhelm i’s death in 1888, Friederich ruled only 99 days before dying of throat cancer.
Thus Wilhelm i’s grandson, Wilhelm ii, ascended to the throne that same year. By 1890 he had forced Bismarck out of office; the new kaiser wanted to establish his own ultimate authority.
Kaiser Wilhelm ii was also determined to extend the German Empire’s power and influence throughout the world. So strong was his motivation, he even considered attacking the United States in a daring naval assault on New York, Boston and other U.S. ports 20 years before World War i began, because he wanted the Pacific Ocean clear for German colonial conquest.
Most do not realize this fact concerning the German Empire: Several kings, princes and other possessors of royal seats ruled under the kaiser’s seat of Prussian rule in this German alliance.
In November 1918, after the Great War had ended, all ruling monarchies in Germany lost their thrones and were officially abolished.
Count Carl-Eduard von Bismarck, descendant of Prince Otto von Bismarck, is one reminder of Germany’s once-great past living in today’s Germany. A wealthy banker, Bismarck is currently seeking political office and views Prussia just as his ancestor: “Prussia is a name that is known internationally and stands for something special” (Sunday Times, London, March 24).
Bismarck went on to declare, “It is back to the roots of Germany.” Yet, when history is closely examined, these deep Prussian roots reveal the true character of Germany as a militaristic-minded nation.
Days of Prussian Glory Revisited
After the destruction of Nazi Germany, cities were left in ruin by Allied bombs, and many historical buildings were lost or damaged beyond repair; Hitler’s plans were burned to ashes.
“Yet it has remained mysteriously unknown to this day that immediately after conquering Poland, Hitler charged his architect [Albert] Speer in October 1939 with expanding a residence in the East—a palace built by Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm ii between 1905-1910—in what was then the Prussian province of Posen” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Feb. 19).
Hitler looked to the past with pride. Even today, Germans continue to visit cities and territories of their once-extensive empire, such as the Russian city of Kaliningrad (formally Königsberg, Prussia). “For Germans, Kaliningrad is still important from an emotional standpoint. German cash has been raised to reconstruct the ruined Königsberg cathedral, and thousands of Germans make pilgrimages to the city each summer in an attempt to rediscover their lost roots” (Telegraph, Jan. 21, 2001).
Königsberg was the first capital of Prussia, where Frederick the Great’s grandfather proclaimed himself Prussia’s first king in 1701.
Do the Russians remember the history of the former Königsberg? Germany doesn’t seem to think so. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kaliningrad has become an island unto itself—trapped between Poland and Lithuania—essentially deserted by Russia.
The Germans remember why. As they look to rediscover their lost roots, Königsberg will continue to weigh heavy in the hearts of Germans who long for the imperial past and the old borders that made up Prussia. When both Poland and Lithuania become members of the European Union as slated in 2003, Kaliningrad will be surrounded by the EU, leaving Russia disconnected from Kaliningrad.
Vladimir Yegorov, governor of the Kaliningrad region, has expressed his fears of an uprising by the people. He made it clear to the Kremlin that if living conditions continue to worsen, it could lead to a separation from Russia. He said the people of Kaliningrad might take matters into their own hands if they no longer had anything to lose.
Dreams of Regaining Königsberg
Britain’s Telegraph reported early last year that Germany and Russia were in secret talks to return Königsberg to Germany. But can Germany really hope to have Königsberg back?
Berlin had given billions of dollars to Russia that they knew could not be paid back. This begs the question: Will Russia trade land to offset the money it owes to Germany? Will a deal be struck in secret—just as they agreed to partition Poland right before World War ii?
Russia’s economic partnership with Germany is beginning to resemble the one they had just before World Wars i and ii. Once again, Russia sees Germany as one of its most important and stable trade partners. The roots for this partnership run deep, as Prussia, the center of the German nation-state, traditionally looked to Russia as an ally.
Yet, as history proves, the roots of German-Russian loyalty are not deep enough to endure. The non-aggression pact formed between the two nations in 1939 was completely ignored when, two years later, Germany attacked Russia.
The Power of Prussia
Eberhard Straub of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently said that if a new Prussia incorporated the areas of Berlin, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Western Pomerania and Mecklenburg, the German mindset could be changed: “Such a northern German federation in the form of a rejuvenated Prussia might after all arouse the energies that the weak need to grow strong—when united” (Feb. 20).
Straub undoubtedly speaks for many Germans. He challenged the people of Brandenburg and Berlin to persuade their fellowcitizens throughout the nation to the sensible benefits of restoring Prussia, “and thereby the whole of Germany, thus shaking it out of its lethargy” (ibid.).
In 1993, many Germans viewed a temporary life-sized replica of the former Prussian palace—home for the Prussian monarchy until 1918—in Berlin, creating huge momentum for its reconstruction. Then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder agreed with the traditionalists who believe that only by rebuilding the once-magnificent palace can all that was good about Prussia be fully understood.
To further embrace Germany’s glorious past, Schröder set up a panel to debate how to revive Berlin’s historic center—including the former Prussian palace, despite critics who argued that the palace could create nostalgia for a militaristic state.
“The wound must be healed—and in the architectural form of what was destroyed,” said panel chairman Hannes Swoboda at a news conference concerning the Prussian palace’s future (Associated Press, Jan. 18).
The hope for a Prussian rebirth is strong among those Germans who remember the greatness of the country’s 19th-century history. The idea of a Prussian state is but further evidence of a resurrected Holy Roman Empire with Germany at its head (Rev. 13:3-4).
Whoever leads this resurrected Holy Roman Empire will need people to wholeheartedly exhibit one specific Prussian virtue, that of blind obedience.
Professor Mayer reflected on a German proverb that says Prussians are slow to draw, and warned that when some well-known Bavarians start claiming that they are the better Prussians, “Prussia should watch out [before the] Bavarians storm Berlin” (op. cit.).
Adolf Hitler was closely associated with Bavaria, having been born in the neighboring city of Braunau am Inn and served in the Bavarian army in World War i. He used the Prussian military machine for his evil purpose, and millions followed him with blind obedience to make his idealism come alive, catapulting humanity into the Second World War.
Prussian power ruled by a Bavarian leader can be a lethal combination. Hitler has proven that. And now that Germany is unified and leading the European Union—and with the Bavarian Edmund Stoiber running in the German elections this year—could such a lethal combination of political rule happen again?