Modern history


Merged into Germany

In the spring of 1848, as crowds thronged through the streets of revolutionary Berlin, King Frederick William IV declared that Prussia would ‘henceforth be merged into Germany’ (Preussen geht fortan in Deutschland auf). His words were premature, but prescient nevertheless. They hinted at the ambivalent portent of national unification for the Prussian state. Germany was unified under Prussian leadership, but the long-awaited consummation inaugurated a process of dissolution. With the formation of a German national state, the Prussia whose history we have traced in this book came to an end. Prussia was no longer an autonomous actor on the international stage. It had to learn to inhabit the large and ponderous body of the new Germany. The demands of German nationhood complicated the inner life of the Prussian state, amplifying its dissonances, disturbing its political equilibrium, loosening some bonds while reinforcing others, bringing at once a diffusion and a narrowing of identities.



In formal terms, Prussia’s place within the new Germany was defined by the imperial constitution of 16 April 1871. This remarkable document was the fruit of a complex historical compromise. A balance had to be struck between the ambitions of the sovereign entities that had come together to form the German Reich. Bismarck himself was mainly concerned with consolidating and extending Prussian power, but this was not a programme that held much appeal for the governments of Baden, Württemberg or Bavaria. The constitution that resulted was emphatically devolved in character. Indeed, it was not so much a constitution in the traditional sense as a treaty among the sovereign territories that had agreed to form the German Empire.1 This was made abundantly clear in the preamble, which opened with the words:

His Majesty the King of Prussia in the name of the North German Confederation, His Majesty the King of Bavaria, His Majesty the King of Württemberg, His Royal Highness the Grand Duke of Baden, His Royal Highness the Grand Duke of Hesse [… ] for those parts of the Duchy of Hesse that are south of the River Main, conclude an everlasting federation [Bund] for the protection of the territory of the federation and the rights thereof – as well as to care for the welfare of the German people.

In accordance with the notion that the new Empire was a confederation of sovereign principalities (Fürstenbund), the member states continued to operate their own parliamentary legislatures and constitutions. The power to set and raise direct taxes rested exclusively with the member states, not with the Reich, whose revenues derived chiefly from indirect levies. There remained a plurality of German crowns and courts, all of which still enjoyed various privileges and traditional dignities. The larger German states even continued to exchange ambassadors with one another, as they had within the old German Confederation. Foreign powers, by the same logic, sent envoys not only to Berlin, but also to Dresden and Munich. There was no reference to the German nation and as yet no official German nationality, though the constitution also obliged the federal states to concede equal citizenship rights to all members of the new Empire.2

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the new political order – as the constitution defined it – was the weakness of the central authority. This aspect is cast more sharply into relief if we compare it with the abortive imperial constitution drawn up by the liberal lawyers of the Frankfurt Parliament in 1848–9. Whereas the Frankfurt constitution set down uniform political principles for the governments of all the individual states, the later document did not. Whereas the Frankfurt constitution envisaged the formation of a ‘Reich Authority’ distinct from those of the member states, the constitution of 16 April 1871 stated that the sovereign German authority was the Federal Council, consisting of ‘representatives of the members of the Federation’.3 The council determined what bills were to be brought before the Reichstag, its assent was required before bills could become law, and it was responsible for overseeing the execution of Reich legislation. Every member of the Federation had the right to propose bills and to have them debated in the council. The constitution of 1871 even announced (art. 8) that the Federal Council would form from its own members a range of ‘permanent committees’ with responsibility for a variety of spheres, including foreign affairs, the army and fortresses, and naval matters. An uninitiated reader of the constitution could thus be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that the Federal Council was the true seat, not only of sovereignty, but of political power in the German Empire. This fastidious accommodation of federal rights appeared to leave little room for the exercise of Prussian hegemony.

But constitutions are often unreliable guides to political reality – one thinks of the ‘constitutions’ of the Soviet-bloc states after 1945 with their pious allusions to freedom of the press and opinion. The Reichsverfassung of 1871 was no exception. The practical evolution of German politics over the following decades undermined the authority vested in the Federal Council. Although Chancellor Bismarck always insisted that Germany was and remained a ‘confederation of principalities’ (Fürstenbund), the constitutional promise of the Council was never fulfilled. The most important reason for this was simply the overwhelming primacy, in military and territorial terms, of Prussia. Within the federation, the state of Prussia, with 65 per cent of the surface area and 62 per cent of the population, enjoyed de facto hegemony. The Prussian army dwarfed the south German military establishments. The King of Prussia was also, as German Emperor under article 63 of the constitution, the supreme commander of the imperial armed forces, and article 61 stipulated that the ‘whole Prussian military code’ was to be ‘introduced throughout the Reich without delay’.

This made a nonsense of any federal pretensions to regulate military affairs through a ‘permanent committee’. Prussia’s dominance also made itself felt within the Federal Council. With the exception of the Hanseatic city-states of Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen, the lesser principalities in central and northern Germany formed a Prussian clientele upon whom pressure could always be applied if necessary. Prussia in its own right possessed only seventeen of the fifty-eight votes on the Council, a smaller portion than its size justified, but since only fourteen votes were needed to veto draft laws, Prussia was in a position to block unwelcome initiatives from other states. As Prussian minister-president, Prussian foreign minister and imperial chancellor, Bismarck ensured that the federal Committee for Foreign Affairs remained a dead letter, despite the provisions of the constitution under article 8. As a result, the Prussian foreign ministry became in effect the foreign ministry of the German Empire. In the sphere of domestic politics, the Federal Council lacked the bureaucratic machinery necessary for the drafting of laws. This left it dependent upon the large and well-trained Prussian bureaucracy, with the result that the Council came increasingly to function as a body of review for bills which had been formulated and debated by the Prussian ministry of state. The subordinate role of the Federal Council was reflected even in the political architecture of Berlin; lacking a building of its own, it was housed in the imperial chancellery.

The primacy of Prussia was further assured by the relative weakness of imperial administrative institutions. A Reich administration of sorts did emerge during the 1870s as new departments were established to deal with the growing pressure of Reich business, but it remained dependent upon the Prussian administrative structure. The heads of the Reich offices (foreign affairs, interior, justice, postal services, railways, treasury) were not ministers properly speaking, but state secretaries of subordinate rank who answered directly to the imperial chancellor. The Prussian bureaucracy was larger than the Reich’s and remained so until the outbreak of the First World War. Most of the officials employed in the imperial administration were Prussians, but this was not a one-way process in which Prussians swarmed on to the commanding heights of the new German state. It would be truer to say Prussian and German national institutions grew together, intertwining their branches. It became increasingly common, for example, for non-Prussians to serve as imperial officials and even as Prussian ministers. The personnel of the Prussian ministries and the imperial secretariats grew ever more enmeshed.4 By 1914, some 25 per cent of ‘Prussian’ army officers did not possess Prussian citizenship.5

Yet even as the membranes between Prussia and the other German states became more permeable, the residual federalism of the German system ensured that Prussia retained its distinctive political institutions. Of these, the most important in constitutional terms was Prussia’s bicameral legislature. The German Reichstag was elected on the basis of universal manhood suffrage. By contrast, the lower house of the Prussian Landtag, as we have seen, was saddled with a three-class franchise whose powerful inbuilt bias in favour of property-owners ensured the predominance of conservative and right-liberal forces. Whereas elections to the national parliament were based on direct and secret ballots, the Prussian Landtag was constituted using a system of public ballots and an indirect franchise (voters elected a college of representatives, who in turn chose deputies).

This system had seemed a reasonable enough answer to the problems facing the administration in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848, and it did not prevent the liberals from mounting a formidable campaign against Bismarck during the constitutional crisis of the early 1860s, but in the decades following unification it began to look increasingly problematic. The three-class system was, above all, notoriously open to manipulation, because the colleges of representatives with their public ballots were much more transparent and manageable than the general public.6 In the 1870s, liberal grandees in the provinces exploited this system to great effect, using their control over local patronage to ensure that rural constituencies returned liberal deputies. But things changed from the late 1870s, when the Bismarck administration began systematically manipulating the electoral process in favour of conservative candidates: local bureaucracies were purged of politically unreliable elements and opened to conservative aspirants who were encouraged to play an active role in pro-government agitation; electoral boundaries were gerrymandered to safeguard conservative majorities; polling places were moved to conservative areas within swinging rural constituencies, so that voters from opposition strongholds had to trudge across kilometres of open country to place their votes.

The conservatives also benefited from a sea-change in political attitudes, as country voters, unnerved by the economic slump of the mid-seventies, abandoned liberalism to embrace protectionist, pro-agrarian sectoral politics. In rural areas the result was an almost seamless continuity between conservative landed elites, Prussian officialdom and the conservative contingent in the Landtag. The cohesion of this network was further reinforced by the Prussian upper house, an even more conservative body than the Landtag, in which hereditary peers and representatives of the landed interest sat beside ex officio delegates from the cities, the clergy and universities. Established in 1854 by Frederick William IV (on the model of the British House of Lords) with a view to strengthening the corporate element in the new constitution, the upper house had helped to block liberal bills during the ‘New Era’ and remained thereafter – until its dissolution in 1918–a weighty conservative ‘ballast’ within the system.7

The effects of this partial merging of the conservative rural interest with the organs of government and representation were far-reaching. The Prussian electoral system favoured the consolidation of a powerful agrarian lobby. This in turn meant that a substantial part of the rural population, which accounted for the great majority of mandates, came to see the three-class system as the best guarantor of agrarian interests. It was reasonable to assume that the introduction of a direct, secret and equal franchise in Prussia would undermine the conservative and national-liberal fractions and thereby jeopardize the fiscal privileges of the agrarian sector, which benefited from preferential tax rates and protectionist tariffs on imported foodstuffs. After 1890, when the Social Democrats emerged as the largest polling party in the German national (Reichstag) elections, it became possible to argue that the three-class system was the only bulwark protecting Prussia, its institutions and traditions, against revolutionary socialism. This was an argument that not only conservatives, but also many right-wing liberals and some rural Catholics found persuasive.8 The three-class franchise thus had the baleful effect of reinforcing the influence of the conservative rural interest to the point where far-reaching reform of the system became impossible. Chancellors – or even a Kaiser – who attempted to tamper with the special entitlements of the rural sector risked vociferous and well-coordinated opposition from the agrarian fronde. Learning this lesson cost two chancellors (Caprivi and Bülow) their posts.9

The Prussian system thus immobilized itself; it became in constitutional terms the conservative anchor within the German system, just as Bismarck had intended.10 There was nothing especially nefarious about the egotistical sector-politics of the agrarians – the left liberals were just as frank about their pro-business, low-tax policies, and the Social Democrats claimed to speak only for the German ‘proletariat’, whose future ‘dictatorship’ – in the raw Marxist rhetoric still favoured by the party – was assured. But it was the agrarians and their conservative allies who succeeded in imprinting their interests and, to an extent, their political culture, on the system itself, laying claim in the process to ownership of the very idea of a unique and independent Prussia. Between 1899 and 1911, while virtually every other German territory (excepting the Mecklenburgs and the tiny principality of Waldeck) underwent substantial electoral reform, Prussia remained ensnared in its increasingly anomalous electoral arrangements.11 On the eve of the First World War, Prussian citizens were still being denied an equal, direct and secret ballot. Only in the summer of 1917, under the pressure of war and a growing domestic opposition, did the Prussian administration relinquish its commitment to the old franchise. But before there was a chance to find out how the monarchical system would fare under more progressive electoral arrangements, it was swallowed up in the defeat and revolution of 1918.


While the Prussian constitution remained frozen in time, Prussian political culture did not. The hegemony of the conservatives was impressive, but it was also limited in important ways. There was a fraught polarity between the Prussia whose deputies – many of them socialists and left liberals – sat in the Reichstag, and the rural Prussia whose representatives dominated the Landtag. Reichstag elections enjoyed remarkably high rates of voter participation – from 67.7 per cent in 1898 to a staggering 84.5 per cent in 1912, the last election before the end of the war, when the Social Democrats captured more than a third of all German votes. By contrast, Prussian voters in the poorer income brackets showed their contempt for the three-class system by simply staying away from the polls during Prussian state elections – in the elections of 1893, only 15.2 per cent of the third class of voters (encompassing the overwhelming majority of the population) actually bothered to cast their votes.

The extreme regional diversity of the Prussian lands also limited the scope of conservative politics. On the eve of the First World War, Prussian conservatism was almost exclusively an East-Elbian phenomenon. Of 147 conservative deputies in the Prussian Landtag of 1913, 124 were from the old provinces of Prussia; only one conservative deputy was returned from the Prussian Rhineland.12 In this sense, the three-class system accentuated the divide between east and west, widening the emotional distance between the politically progressive industrial, commercialized, urban and substantially Catholic west and the ‘Asiatic steppe’ of Prussian East-Elbia.13 And this socio-geographical separateness in turn hindered the emergence of the kind of bourgeois-noble ‘composite elite’ that set the tone in the south German states, ensuring that the politics of the Junker milieu acquired a flavour of intransigence and extremism that set it apart.14

Outside the conservative heartlands, however, and especially in the western provinces and the major cities, there flourished a robust and predominantly middle-class political culture. In many large towns, liberal oligarchies, sustained by limited urban franchises, oversaw progressive programmes of infrastructural rationalization and social provision.15 Especially in the years after 1890, the dramatic expansion in the variety and mass consumption of newspapers across the Prussian cities released formidable critical energies, confronting successive administrations with an image problem they found impossible to resolve. This was, as one senior political figure observed in 1893, ‘an era of limitless publicity, where countless threads run here and there and no bell can be rung without everyone forming a judgement about its tone’.16

The 1890s were a turning point for the socialists too, whose most important strongholds lay in the industrial zone around Berlin and the growing conurbations of the Ruhr area. In the elections of 1890, the socialists emerged from a period of draconian repression as the largest-polling German party. A socialist sub-culture evolved, with specialist clubs and venues catering to an emergent constituency of industrial workers, labourers, tradesmen and low-wage employees. By the turn of the century, Prussia was the stamping ground of Europe’s largest and best-organized socialist movement, a fitting tribute to its two Prussian grandfathers, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

The strife and polarization so characteristic of European cultural life in the findesiècle also left their mark on Prussia. Here was another world that quickly slipped beyond the control of the conservative elites. The biggest theatrical sensation of the early 1890s in Berlin was Gerhard Hauptmann’s Die Weber, a sympathetic dramatization of the Silesian weavers’ revolt of 1844. Conservatives denounced the play on political grounds as a socialist manifesto, but they were also appalled by the harsh naturalism of its idiom, which was seen as negating the essential values of theatre. The interior ministry in Berlin imposed a ban on public performances of the play, but could not prevent it from appearing before enthusiastic audiences in large private venues such as the Freie Bühne and the Neue Freie Volksbühne, a theatre with links to the Social Democrats. Further bans in the Prussian provinces failed to prevent Die Weber from becoming a huge public success. Even more worrying, from the government’s standpoint, was the fact that a debate over the bans in the lower house of the Prussian Landtag revealed deep divisions around the question of whether the tradition of state theatre censorship was still legitimate in an era of ‘artistic freedom’. Even within the ministry itself, there were doubts about the wisdom of the interior minister’s heavy-handed approach.17

A gap opened up between the official culture of the court and the experimentation and anti-traditionalism of an increasingly fragmented cultural sphere. It can be seen, for example, in the divergence of courtly and popular dance cultures. Around the turn of the century, new North American and Argentinian steps flooded into the dance locales of the larger cities. The fashionable shelf life of individual styles grew shorter and shorter as the jeunesse dorée welcomed the Cakewalk, the Two-Step, the Bunny Hug, the Judy Walk, the Turkey and the Grizzly Bear. But while an increasingly broad public consumed these transatlantic imports, the court of William II saw a revival of pomp and old-world ceremony. All court balls were organized so as not to upstage members of the royal family: ‘if a princess is participating in the dance,’ the journal Der Bazar noted in 1900, ‘only two other pairs apart from the one in which the princess finds herself may dance at the same time.’ William II explicitly forbade members of the armed forces to perform the new steps in public: ‘The Gentlemen of the Army and the Navy are hereby requested to dance neither Tango nor One-Step or Two-Step in uniform, and to avoid families in which these dances are performed.’18

The same widening cultural gap could be seen in architecture and the visual arts. Consider, for example, the contrast between the heavy, neo-baroque megalomania of the new Berlin Cathedral, completed in 1905 after ten years of construction works, and the graceful, austere proto-modernism of the new architects – such as Alfred Messel, Hans Poelzig and Peter Behrens, among others – whose works between 1896 and 1912 were emphatic rejections of the eclectic ‘historical style’ favoured by official Prussia.19 The arbiters of public taste – from Emperor William II to the rectors and professors of the state-funded academies – held that art should edify by drawing its subject matter from medieval legend, mythology or stirring historical episodes, while remaining true to the eternal canons of the ancients. But in 1892 there was bitter controversy in Berlin over an exhibition staged by eleven artists who wanted to free themselves from the strictures of the official salon. The ‘bleak and wild naturalism’ (thus the words of one outraged critic) of Max Liebermann, Walter Leistikow and their associates ran directly against the grain of officially sanctioned art practice. By 1898, the rebellion had broadened and diversified into the ‘Berlin Secession’, whose first exhibition, held in 1898, showcased the wide range of styles and perspectives taking shape within the non-official art world and was a huge public success.

What was interesting about the Secessionists was not simply their oppositional relationship to the prevailing cultural authorities, but the specifically Prussian and local content of much of their work. Walter Leistikow, who hailed from Bromberg in West Prussia, was well known for his haunting images of the Mark Brandenburg: trees brooding in shadow beside lakes, flat landscapes pocked with still, luminous water. His painting Der Grunewaldsee, a dark, atmospheric view of a lake on the leafy south-western outskirts of Berlin, was rejected for exhibition by the official Berlin Salon in 1898 – indeed, it was the controversy over this decision that prompted the Secessionists to create their own forum in the following year. Leistikow’s paintings and etchings disturbed contemporary sensibilities in part because they took possession of the Brandenburg landscape in the name of a new and potentially subversive sensibility. William II, who loathed Leistikow’s work, registered this sense of displacement when he complained that the artist had ‘ruined the entire Grunewald’ for him (‘er hat mir den ganzen Grunewald versaut’).20 Käthe Kollwitz laid claim to a specifically Prussian tradition in a different sense: in a widely praised cycle of etchings inspired by Hauptmann’s play, she invoked the Silesian weavers’ revolt of 1844. These were scenes of bitter conflict and suffering, in which the epic canvas of history painting was subverted to serve a socialist vision of the past. Even the proto-modernist architects Messel, Poelzig and Behrens were engaged in a dialogue with the specificity of the Prussian setting: their airy and technically innovative architectural designs responded at many levels with the spare neo-classicism of the ‘Prussian style’ associated with Gilly and Schinkel.21

The last decades before the war witnessed a dramatic proliferation in the erection of public monuments and statues. In Prussia, as across much of Europe, the public statuary of this era tended towards weightiness and magniloquence. Patriotic themes loomed large. A study published in 1904 found that in recent years, 372 monuments had been erected to Emperor William I alone, most of them in the Prussian provinces. Some of these were financed from state funds, but local ‘monument committees’ also played a role in many areas, securing the necessary permissions and raising donations. By the turn of the century, however, the public echo of such objects was ambivalent. A telling moment was the opening in 1901 of the Siegesallee (Avenue of Victory), a chain of monumental statues extending for 750 metres along one of the axial roads of the capital. Set into a long sequence of spacious alcoves lined with stone balustrades were freestanding figures on lofty pedestals representing the rulers of the House of Brandenburg, flanked by busts of generals and senior statesmen from the reign. Already at the time of its opening, this gargantuan project appeared out of touch with the times. In his hurry to complete the avenue on schedule, Emperor William II had commissioned sculptors of varied distinction to execute the statues – all were conventional and bombastic, many were clumsy and lifeless as well. The result was an expensive exercise in pomposity and monotony. With their usual irreverence, the Berliners dubbed the avenue the Puppenallee, or ‘puppet alley’, and numerous contemporary visual satires mocked the project as the Emperor’s megalomaniacal folly. The coup de grâce was administered in 1903 when a famous advertisement for a brand of mouthwash featured the Avenue of Victory lined with gigantic bottles of Odol.


48. The Avenue of Victory (Siegesallee), Berlin


49. Advertisement for Odol mouthwash

The increasingly polarized relationship between official and dissenting political cultures was – even in the German context – a specifically Prussian phenomenon. It was far less marked in the southern German states, where progressive coalitions succeeded in pushing through programmes of constitutional reform. The relationship between the ‘governmental’ parties and the Social Democrats was also less fraught in the south, partly because the established partisan groups were more open to collaboration with the left and partly because south German socialists were more moderate and less confrontational than their Prussian counterparts. In high-cultural terms, too, the polarization was less pronounced. By contrast with Kaiser Wilhelm II, who publicly denounced cultural modernism of all kinds, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt was a well-known connoisseur and sponsor of modern art and sculpture. In this small federal state, the court was still an important centre of cultural innovation.


By the end of 1878, more than half of Prussia’s Catholic bishops were in exile or in prison. More than 1,800 priests had been incarcerated or exiled and over 16 million marks’ worth of ecclesiastical property seized. In the first four months of 1875 alone, 241 priests, 136 Catholic newspaper editors and 210 Catholic laymen were fined or imprisoned, 20 newspapers were confiscated, 74 Catholic houses were searched, 103 Catholic political activists were expelled or interned and 55 Catholic associations or clubs were closed down. As late as 1881, a quarter of all Prussian parishes remained without priests. This was Prussia at the height of the Kulturkampf, a ‘struggle of cultures’ that would shape German politics and public life for generations.22

Prussia was not the only European state to see tension over confessional questions in this era. In the 1870s and 1880s, there was heightened conflict between Catholics and secular liberal movements across the European continent. But the Prussian case stands out. Nowhere else did the state proceed so systematically against Catholic institutions and personnel. Administrative reform and law were the two main instruments of discrimination. In 1871, the government abolished the ‘Catholic section’ in the Prussian ministry for church affairs, thereby depriving the Catholics of a separate representation within the senior echelons of the bureaucracy. The criminal code was amended to enable the authorities to prosecute priests who used the pulpit ‘for political ends’. In 1872, further state measures eliminated the influence of ecclesiastical personnel over the planning and implementation of school curricula and the supervision of schools. Members of religious orders were prohibited from teaching in the state school system and the Jesuits were expelled from the German Empire. Under the May Laws of 1873, the training and appointment of clergy in Prussia were placed under state supervision. In 1874, the Prussian government introduced compulsory civil marriage, a step extended to the entire German Empire a year later. Additional legislation in 1875 abolished various allegedly suspect religious orders, choked off state subsidies to the church, and deleted religious guarantees from the Prussian constitution. As Catholic religious personnel were expelled, jailed and forced into hiding, the authorities imposed statutes permitting state-authorized agents to take charge of vacated bishoprics.

Bismarck was the driving force behind this unprecedented campaign. Why did he undertake it? The answer lies partly in his highly confessionalized understanding of the German national question. In the 1850s, during his posting to the German Confederal authority in Frankfurt, he had come to believe that political Catholicism was the chief ‘enemy of Prussia’ in southern Germany. The spectacle of Catholic revivalist piety, with its demonstrative pilgrimages and public festivities, filled him with disgust, as did the increasingly Roman orientation of mid-century Catholicism. At times, indeed, he doubted whether this ‘hypocritical idolatrous papism full of hate and cunning’, whose ‘presumptuous dogma falsified God’s revelation and nurtured idolatry as a basis for worldly domination’ was a religion at all.23 A variety of themes were bundled together here: a fastidious Protestant contempt (accentuated by Bismarck’s Pietist spirituality) for the outward display so characteristic of the Catholic revival blended with a strain of half-submerged German idealism and political apprehensions (shading into paranoia) about the church’s capacity to manipulate minds and mobilize masses.

These antipathies deepened during the conflicts that brought about the unification of Germany. The German Catholics had traditionally looked to Austria for leadership in German affairs and they were unenthusiastic about the prospect of a Prussian-dominated ‘small Germany’ excluding the 6 million (mainly Catholic) Austrian Germans. In 1866, the news of Prussian victory triggered Catholic riots in the south, while the Catholic caucus in the Prussian Landtag opposed the government on a number of key symbolic initiatives, including the indemnity bill, the Prussian annexation programme and the proposal to reward Bismarck and the Prussian generals financially for the recent victory. In 1867–8, the Prussian minister-president – now chancellor of the North German Confederation – was infuriated by the strength of Catholic resistance in the south to a closer union with the north. Particularly alarming was the Bavarian campaign of 1869 against the pro-Prussian policies of the liberal government in Munich. The clergy played a crucial role in mobilizing support for the Catholic-particularist programme of the opposition, agitating from pulpits and collecting petitions bearing hundreds of thousands of signatures.24 After 1871, doubts about the political reliability of the Catholics were further reinforced by the fact that, of the three main ethnic minorities (Poles, Alsatians and Danes), whose representatives formed opposition parties in the Reichstag, two were emphatically Catholic. Bismarck was utterly persuaded of the political ‘disloyalty’ of the 2.5 million Catholic Poles in the Prussian East, and he suspected that the church and its networks were deeply implicated in the Polish nationalist movement.

These concerns resonated more destructively within the new nation-state than they had before. The new Bismarckian Reich was not in any sense an ‘organic’ or historically evolved entity – it was the highly artificial product of four years of diplomacy and war.25 In the 1870s, as so often in the history of the Prussian state, the successes of the monarchy seemed as fragile as they were impressive. There was an unsettling sense that what had so swiftly been put together could also be undone, that the Empire might never acquire the political or cultural cohesion to safeguard itself against fragmentation from within. These anxieties may appear absurd to us, but they felt real to many contemporaries. In this climate of uncertainty, it seemed plausible to view the Catholics as the most formidable domestic hindrance to national consolidation.

In lashing out against the Catholics, Bismarck knew that he could count on the enthusiastic support of the National Liberals, whose powerful positions in the new Reichstag and the Prussian Chamber of Deputies made them indispensable political allies. In Prussia, as in much of Germany (and Europe), anti-Catholicism was one of the defining strands of late-nineteenth-century liberalism. Liberals held up Catholicism as the diametrical negation of their own world-view. They denounced the ‘absolutism’ and ‘slavery’ of the doctrine of papal infallibility adopted by the Vatican Council in 1870(according to which the authority of the pope is unchallengeable when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith or morals). Liberal journalism depicted the Catholic faithful as a servile and manipulated mass (by implied contrast with a liberal social universe centred on male tax-paying worthies with unbound consciences). A bestiary of anti-clerical stereotypes emerged: the satires in liberal journals thronged with wily, thin Jesuits and lecherous, fat priests – amenable subjects because the cartoonist’s pen could make such artful play with the solid black of their garb. By vilifying the parish priest in his confessorial role or impugning the sexual propriety of nuns, they articulated through a double negative the liberal faith in the sanctity of the patriarchal nuclear family. Through their nervousness about the prominent place of women within many of the new Catholic orders and their prurient fascination with the celibacy (or not) of the priest, liberals revealed a deep-seated preoccupation with ‘manliness’ that was crucial (though not always explicitly) to the self-understanding of the movement.26 For the liberals, therefore, the campaign against the church was nothing less than a ‘struggle of cultures’ – the term was coined by the liberal Protestant pathologist Rudolf Virchow in a speech of February 1872 to the Prussian Chamber of Deputies.27

Bismarck’s campaign against the Prussian Catholics was a failure. He had hoped that an anti-Catholic crusade would help to create a broad, Protestant liberal-conservative lobby that would help him to pass legislation consolidating the new Empire. But the integrating effect of the campaign was more fleeting and fragile than he had anticipated. Anti-Catholicism could not sustain a durable platform for government action, either in Prussia or in the Empire. There were many facets to this problem. Bismarck himself was less of an extremist than many of those whose passions were aroused by his policy. He was a religious man who sought the guidance of God in his administration of state affairs (and usually, as the left liberal Ludwig Bamberger sardonically noted, found the deity agreeing with him).28 His religion was – in the Pietist tradition – non-sectarian and ecumenical. He was opposed to the complete separation of church and state sought by the liberals, and he did not believe that religion was a purely private affair. Bismarck did not share the left-liberal hope that religion would ultimately wither away as a social force. He was thus unnerved by the anti-clerical and secularizing energies released by the Kulturkampf.

The anti-Catholic campaign also failed because the confessional divide was cross-cut by the other fault-lines in the Prussian political landscape. As the Kulturkampf wore on, the rift between left liberals and right liberals proved in some respects even deeper than that between the liberals and the Catholics. By the mid-1870s, the left liberals had begun to oppose the campaign on the grounds that it infringed fundamental rights. The increasing radicalism of anti-church measures also prompted misgivings in many Protestants on the ‘clerical’ wing of German conservatism. The view gained ground that the real victim of the Kulturkampf was not the Catholic church or Catholic politics as such, but religion itself. The most prominent examples of such conservative scruples were Ernst Ludwig von Gerlach and Hans von Kleist, both men formed by the Pietist milieu of old Prussia.

Even if the support for Bismarck’s policy had been more secure, it is


50. Anti-clerical stereotypes. Cartoon by Ludwig Stutz from the satirical journal Kladderadatsch, Berlin, December 1900.

highly doubtful that he could ever have succeeded in neutralizing Catholic dissent by any of the means available to a constitutional and law-abiding state. Bismarck himself had been in his twenties when the fight over mixed marriages broke out in the Prussian Rhineland in 1837, a struggle that mobilized the Catholic population in the province and enhanced the moral authority of the episcopate. He must also have remembered the vain efforts of the Prussian government to impose the Prussian Union on the ‘Old Lutherans’ of Silesia – here again was a clear illustration of the futility of applying legal coercion to a confessional minority. And yet Bismarck and his partisans made the old mistake of overrating the power of the state and underestimating the determination of their opponents. In many areas, Catholic clerical personnel simply failed to respond in any way at all to the new laws.29 The new state ‘cultural examinations’ for young priests approaching ordination were not attended; the state endorsements required for new ecclesiastical appointments were not sought.

The Prussian authorities, who had rushed these laws through and had not thought very deeply about how to ensure compliance, responded to this civil disobedience (as had their predecessors in the 1830s) by imposing improvised sanctions ranging from fines of varying severity to terms of imprisonment and exile. But these measures had virtually no detectable effect. The church continued to make ‘illegal’ appointments and the fines levied by the government authorities continued to accumulate. By early 1874, the archbishop of Gnesen-Posen alone had incurred fines totalling 29,700 thalers, more than twice his annual stipend; the figure for his colleague in Cologne was 29,500. When fines remained unpaid, the local authorities confiscated the property of bishops and offered it up at public auction. But this too was counter-productive, because loyal Catholics would rally to manage the auction in such a way as to ensure that the goods were sold at the lowest possible prices and returned to the expropriated clergyman.

Imprisonment was equally futile. As senior ecclesiastical dignitaries, bishops and archbishops were treated with such leniency during their incarceration that they might as well have been in their homes. They were allowed to occupy suites of rooms furnished from the episcopal palace and they dined on food prepared by the palace kitchens. In the case of Johannes von der Marwitz, the elderly bishop of Kulm (West Prussia), the option of imprisonment was even vetoed by the local judiciary on the grounds that the stairs of the local penitentiary were too steep for him to ascend. The authorities treated common parish priests far more harshly, but this too was ineffective, since it merely intensified the solidarity of the faithful with their beleaguered priests and hardened the determination of the latter to resist. After even brief jail terms, priests returned as heroes to their parishes.

The government attempted to resolve this problem in May 1874 by introducing a new batch of regulations known collectively as the Expulsion Law and providing for the exile of insurgent bishops and clergy to remote locations – a favourite was the Baltic island of Rügen. Several hundred priests were rounded up and exiled under these regulations in the four years between 1875 and 1879. But this measure created more problems than it solved. Who was to police the enforcement of the expulsion orders? In theory, this responsibility fell to the district commissioners (Landräte), but an official overseeing a population of 50,000 scattered over 200 square kilometres could hardly be expected to keep abreast of developments in every parish. It was not unknown for priests simply to return unnoticed after their expulsions and resume their clerical duties. In one such case an expelled priest worked in his parish for two years before the authorities became aware of his existence; by this time, the expulsion order against him had elapsed.30 It also proved extremely difficult to replace the displaced priests with politically reliable successors. The individuals appointed by the state to replace dismissed clergymen were an abject failure, since they were despised and vilified by the Catholic populace. In a number of cases, the local authorities found that the only way to ensure compliance was to organize compulsory church parades in army encampments.

Far from neutralizing Catholicism as a political and social force, then, Bismarck’s campaign enhanced it. Bismarck had reckoned that the Catholic camp would split under the pressure of the new laws, marginalizing the ultramontanes (exponents of papal authority) and transforming the remainder of the church into a compliant partner of the state. But in fact the opposite happened: the effect of state action was to drive back and marginalize liberal and statist elements within Catholicism. The controversies provoked in many Catholic communities by the declaration of papal infallibility in 1870 were put aside as critics of the doctrine acknowledged that papal absolutism was a lesser evil than the secularizing state. A small contingent of liberal anti-infallibilists, most of them academics, did split from Rome to form ‘Old Catholic’ congregations – a distant echo of the radical ‘German-Catholics’ who had congregated under the motto ‘away from Rome’ in the 1840s – but they never acquired a significant social base.

Perhaps the most conspicuous evidence of Bismarck’s failure is simply the spectacular growth of the Centre Party, the party of the Prussian – and many German – Catholics. Although Bismarck did succeed in isolating the Centre Party within the Prussian parliament – at least for a time – he could do nothing to prevent it from increasing its share of German votes in the national elections. Whereas only 23 per cent of Prussian Catholics had voted Centre in 1871, 45 per cent did so in 1874. Thanks in large part to the ravages of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, the Centre Party ‘peaked early’, efficiently colonizing its social milieu, mobilizing Catholics who had hitherto been politically inactive, expanding the frontiers of partisan politics.31 The other parties would gradually follow suit by mobilizing their own new voters from the non-Catholic parts of the population, but it was not until 1912 that the Centre Party’s great leap forward was evened out by improvements in the performance of other parties. Even then, the Centre remained the strongest Reichstag party after the Social Democrats. Since most liberals and conservatives were still wary of dealing with the socialists, this made the Centre the most powerful player on the parliamentary scene – hardly the outcome Bismarck had in mind when he opened hostilities in 1871.

Prussia was no stranger to confessional tensions, but the scope and brutality of Bismarck’s anti-Catholic campaign was unprecedented in the history of the state. The controversy over mixed marriages in the later 1830s had been dramatic, partly because of the emotive character of the issue, but it was essentially an institutional conflict between church and state, in which the objective was to stake out the boundaries of authority within an administrative grey zone. By contrast, the Kulturkampf was a ‘culture war’, a struggle in which it seemed that the very identity of the new nation was at stake. That the conflict between state and church should have expanded in this way to embrace the totality of public life was a consequence of the unstable interaction between Prussia’s confessional tensions, Bismarck’s ruthlessness and the challenges posed by German nationhood. In seeking to drive the Catholic church out of politics, Bismarck had used Prussian instruments to achieve German objectives. ‘You may perhaps prove that I erred,’ he told the Reichstag in a speech of 1881, ‘but never that I lost sight for one moment of the national goal.’32 Few political conflicts illustrate more clearly than the Kulturkampf the volatilizing effect of German unification on Prussian politics.


‘During the proceedings in this House,’ a Polish deputy told the Reichstag of the North German Confederation in February 1870,

we find ourselves in a curious position when words ring in our ears about the German past, about German mores and customs, about the welfare of the German people. Not that we begrudge the German people their welfare or want to impede their future. But what for you may be a common bond – this past, these mores and customs, this future – is for us more an element of separation vis-à-vis yourselves.33

The Poles of the Prussian east responded to the political unification of the German states with a sense of foreboding. To be a Polish subject of the Prussian Crown might be a difficult predicament, but to be a Polish German was a contradiction in terms. Subjecthood and nationality were complementary concepts; the Poles might learn to live – at least outwardly – in peace with the Prussian state. They might even come to prize its virtues. But how could they subsist – as Poles – within a German nation? The ascendancy of the nation as a focal point for identity and a rationale for political action was bound to have far-reaching consequences for the Poles of the Prussian lands.

Of the 18.5 million inhabitants of Prussia in 1861, 2.25 million were Poles, concentrated mainly in the provinces of Posen and West Prussia (55 and 32 per cent Polish respectively) and the south-eastern districts of Silesia. Prussian policy regarding this minority, the largest in the Hohenzollern lands, had always been ambivalent, oscillating between tolerance and repression. After 1815, the government accepted the existence of a distinctive Polish nationality and fatherland under the Hohenzollern sceptre, though only on the condition, of course, that the Poles remained loyal Prussian subjects. When the Polish uprising of 1830 raised concerns about the dangers posed by Polish nationalism, the administration switched to cultural repression centred on the imposition of German as the language of education and public communication, but this policy was abandoned in 1840 after the accession of Frederick William IV. The wind changed again in 1846 after an abortive Polish insurrection in the Grand Duchy of Posen. The group behind the uprising was the Posen-city-based ‘Union of the Working Classes’, whose objective was to break the power of both the Prussian administration and the Polish landed nobility. Before the insurrection could get going, however, its prospective leaders were betrayed by anxious Polish noblemen to the Prussian police. A crackdown followed, in the course of which 254 Poles were tried in Berlin for involvement in the conspiracy, provincial towns were combed by police units, and suspect press organs gagged or closed down.

This zig-zag course was essentially pragmatic and reactive. The goal was to ensure the political stability of the Polish areas. The cultivation of a distinctively Polish cultural milieu was acceptable, as long as this did not feed into nationalist or secessionist aspirations. However, the situation changed somewhat after the revolutions of 1848. These seemed at first to bring good news for the Poles. Prussian liberal opinion was overwhelmingly pro-Polish. In March 1848, the imprisoned radicals of the 1846 uprising were liberated and paraded through the streets of Berlin to wild cheering. The new ‘March’ ministry favoured the restoration of Poland as a buffer against potential Russian aggression, and on 2 April, the reconvened Prussian United Diet also passed a motion in favour of Polish restoration. Not for the first, or the last, time, it seemed that the hour of Polish liberty was at hand. Ludwik Mieroslawski, a military strategist and one of the leaders of the 1846 uprising, hurried to Posen to assemble a Polish army.34 In the mainly Polish areas of the duchy, the authority of the Prussian administration faded away as the local nobility took matters into their own hands, recruiting fighters and raising funds for Mieroslawski. It was an alarming demonstration of the fragility of Prussian governance on the eastern margins of the kingdom.

At the same time, however, the revolution triggered a process of ethnic polarization in the Grand Duchy of Posen. When the Polish National Committee in Posen refused to admit German members, the latter formed their own German committee, which soon fell under the influence of nationalists. Many Germans in predominantly Polish areas fled to solidly German districts where the Prussian local administration was still functioning. On 9 April, activists in Bromberg founded the Netze District Central Citizens’ Committee for the Promotion of Prussian and German Interests in the Grand Duchy of Posen – the juxtaposition of ‘Prussian’ and ‘German’ was telling, to say the least.35 In May, after various efforts at compromise had collapsed, the Prussian army entered the duchy and crushed Mieroslawski’s army in a series of bloody military engagements. Prussian officials returned to their posts. The revolutionary National Assembly in Berlin continued to argue for a policy of Polish national equality under Prussian rule, but it was dissolved in the coup d’état of November 1848.

The new Prussian constitution of 1848–50 contained no reference to the idea of Polish minority rights and no indication that Posen or any other Polish district enjoyed special status. To senior administrators, the idea that the Prussian Crown might secure Polish loyalties by a policy of leniency now seemed passé. The Poles, it was argued, were beyond such appeals: ‘they cannot be won over by any concessions,’ an interior ministry report observed in November 1849.36 Since the conciliation of the Polish national movement in Posen was an impossibility, the Prussian government was left with no option but to ‘confine it energetically to the subordinate position it deserves’.37 The term ‘Germanization’ (Germanisierung) began to appear with increasing frequency in official documents.

Yet the Prussian government showed little interest in adopting the idea of ‘Germanization’ as the basis for concrete policy measures. Calls from Posnanian Germans for government assistance to the German minority went unanswered – Minister-President Otto von Manteuffel took the view that if the German element was unable to subsist without state intervention, then it had no future. The authorities kept a close watch on nationalist activity, but the Poles continued to enjoy the civil liberties vouchsafed under the Prussian constitution, including the right to mount election campaigns on behalf of Polish deputies to the Landtag. Moreover, the Prussian judiciary in Posen was scrupulous in defending the status of Polish as the language of internal administration and elementary schooling.38

In the 1860s there were periodic calls for government Germanization measures, but the government remained reluctant to act, partly because it believed that market forces would ultimately favour German settlement and partly – in the years 1866–9 – because Bismarck was keen to appease the Polish clergy in order not to alienate the German Catholics of the southern states and jeopardize unification. So determined was Bismarck to maintain good relations with the Polish hierarchy during these years that he sacked the provincial president, Carl von Horn, in 1869 after a dispute between the latter and Archbishop Ledóchowski of Posen-Gnesen.39

The accomplishment of German political unification brought a paradigm shift in the government’s handling of the Polish question. The Prussian authorities in the east were deeply alarmed during the summer of 1870 by the wave of undisguised partisanship for France. Polish recruits were urged to desert their Prussian regiments (a call that virtually none of them followed) and there were angry demonstrations at the news of Prussian-German victories. The situation in Posen appeared so volatile during the hostilities with France that reserve troop contingents were quartered on the province to keep order.40 This rebellious behaviour triggered outbursts of vengeful fury from Bismarck. ‘From the Russian border to the Adriatic Sea,’ he told a Prussian cabinet meeting in the autumn of 1871, ‘we are confronted with the combined propaganda of Slavs, ultramontanes and reactionaries, and it is necessary openly to defend our national interests and our language against such hostile activities.’41 Hyperbolic to the point of paranoia, this imagined scenario of Slavic-Roman encirclement revealed the depth of Bismarck’s anxieties for the new Prussian-German nation-state. Here again was that paradoxical sense of fragility and beleagueredness that had dogged the Prussian state at every phase of its aggrandizement.

Bismarck’s first target was the Polish clergy whose interests he had earlier so assiduously defended. The chief objective of the Schools Inspection Act of 11 March 1872 was to replace the ecclesiastical dignitaries who had traditionally overseen the inspection of the 2,480 Catholic schools in the province with professional full-time inspectors in the pay of the state. Poland thus became the launching pad for Prussia’s Kulturkampf against the Catholic church, and the old Prussian policy of pragmatic collaboration with the hierarchy was cast aside. The effect, predictably enough, was to reinforce the clergy’s leadership in the Polish national struggle. In many areas, the efforts of the Prussian authorities to enforce Kulturkampf legislation against local Polish clergy resulted in direct action. Communities gathered to defend their priests physically against arrest. The ‘state priests’ sent to replace imprisoned or deported clergymen were shunned or even beaten by their congregations. Father Moerke, a German priest assigned by the authorities to the parish of Powidz in 1877, found his church silent and empty – his parishioners preferred to attend the masses of a Polish priest in a nearby village. Even Moerke’s death in 1882 did not dispel the stigma – the villagers dug up his coffin and plunged it into a lake.42

In 1872–3 a volley of royal instructions issued from Berlin restricting the use of languages other than German in the schools of the eastern provinces. Among the collateral victims of this policy were the Prussian Lithuanians, who had never given any cause for offence, and the Polish-speaking East-Prussian Masurians, who were neither Catholics nor enthusiasts of Polish restoration.43 A statute of 1876 established German as the sole language of official business for all Prussian government agencies and political bodies; other vernaculars could still be used in a range of parochial institutions, but this was to be phased out over a maximum of twenty years. Across the Polish areas, the lower clergy played a crucial role in coordinating protests against the new language policy. Parish priests assisted in the posting and collection of petitions – some bearing as many as 300,000 signatures – denouncing the Prussian authorities.44

From this point onwards, Germanization would remain the principle underpinning the rhetoric and much of the action of successive Prussian administrations in the Polish areas. In one of the most notorious manifestations of the new hard-line approach, the Prussian government expelled 32,000 non-naturalized Poles and Jews from Berlin and the eastern provinces in 1885, though they had done nothing to breach German or Prussian law. In 1886, alarmed by the increasing emigration of Germans from the depressed agrarian east to the rapidly industrializing western regions, the conservative-national liberal majority in the Prussian Landtag approved the foundation of a Royal Prussian Colonization Commission. With its headquarters in Posen City and a capital of 100 million marks, the commission’s purpose was to purchase failing Polish estates, subdivide them and hand them out to incoming German farmers. Bismarck – along with many of the conservatives – had initially been opposed to subdivision because he deemed it inimical to the interests of the Junker class, but the colonization programme could succeed only with the backing of the National Liberals, who insisted on parcellation.

As Bismarck’s compromise over colonization policy revealed, Prussian policy in the Polish regions in the late 1880s had to take account of a wide spectrum of domestic political pressures. This trend deepened during the 1890s, when a number of powerful lobby groups emerged with a special interest in the Polish question. Of these, the most important were the Pan-German League (Alldeutscher Verband), founded in 1891 as the voice of German ultra-nationalist opinion and the Society for the Support of the Germans in the Eastern Marches (known from 1899 as the Ostmarkenverein), whose very name was a mission statement. These organizations soon made their presence felt in the sphere of Polish policy. The Pan-Germans cut their teeth in 1894 with a vociferous public campaign against Bismarck’s successor, Chancellor Leo von Caprivi, who was criticized for slackening the pace of Germanization in the Polish areas. The Eastern Marches Society also propagandized energetically through its journal, Die Ostmark, organizing public meetings and lobbying friendly parliamentarians. Such organizations occupied a curious place between the state and civil society. They were, in one sense, independent entities funded by donations, membership fees and the sale of publications. But there were also links to government agencies. The founder of the Pan-Germans, Alfred Hugenberg, had come to Posen as a local official with the Royal Colonization Commission. The membership of the Eastern Marches Society, numbering some 20,000 by 1900, included a substantial contingent of minor state officials and school teachers. These people would have left any organization whose objectives conflicted with the interests of the state, but any doubts on this score were laid to rest in 1895 when the Prussian minister of the interior publicly endorsed the ‘defensive’ work of the Eastern Marches Society during a political debate in the Landtag.

Despite differences within the agrarian-conservative-nationalist milieu over individual issues (such as the increasing use of Polish seasonal labour on the great estates), Germanization remained the operative principle in government policy. In 1900, new measures were introduced under Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow to further prune back the use of Polish. Religious instruction, the traditional safe haven for Polish-language schooling, was henceforth to be administered in German at all levels above elementary. In 1904, the Prussian Landtag passed a law permitting county officials to withhold building permits in situations where granting them would obstruct the colonization programme – the idea was to prevent Poles from buying and subdividing German farms and selling them on to Polish smallholders. There was also state financial aid for the Mittelstandskasse, a bank that specialized in easing the debt burden of German farmers. These actions were flanked by discriminatory recruitment practices in the local and provincial administration – of 3,995 new personnel hired by the Posnanian post and railway authority during the years 1907–9, only 795 were Poles, the rest were Germans. Polish place names began to be erased from the maps (though they remained vivid in Polish popular memory).45 The high point (or low point) of the ‘Germanization’ programme was the anti-Polish expropriation law of 20 March 1908, which permitted the forcible removal of Polish landowners (with financial compensation) for the purposes of German colonization. The conservatives agonized over expropriation, and one can readily see why, but in the end they supported it, having decided that the ethnic struggle between Germans and Slavs overrode the sanctity of legitimate property title.

The Germanization programme was an exercise in futility. It failed to prevent Polish population growth in the eastern areas from outstripping the German. The parcellation of German farms continued, financed in part by energetic Polish banks that skilfully exploited loopholes in the Prussian regulations. The attempt to convert schools to the exclusive use of German had to be abandoned after repeated school strikes and sustained civil disobedience. The expropriation law never fulfilled its fearsome promise. No sooner was it enshrined in law but its teeth were filed down by internal guidelines exempting vast areas of Polish land – for pragmatic and political reasons – from expropriation. Not until October 1912 did the Prussian government announce its intention to execute an actual expropriation. But even then the area involved was small (only 1,700 hectares encompassing four economically insignificant landholdings) and the public backlash in the Polish areas so intense that the administration resolved to avoid any further expropriations.46

The real significance of the Germanization programme thus lies less in its negligible impact on the ethnic boundaries in East Elbia than in what it tells us about the changing political climate in Prussia. The traditional view of the Prussian monarchy had been that the Poles were – like the German-speaking Brandenburgers and Pomeranians and the Lithuanians of East Prussia – Christian subjects of the Prussian Crown. But from the 1870s onwards, Prussian administrators departed from this standpoint. In doing so, they followed the promptings of organizations outside the state whose arguments and propaganda were saturated with the rhetoric of German ultra-nationalism. There was a negative circularity in this relationship: ever uncertain of the depth of its public support, the state endorsed the work of the nationalist lobbies, who in turn derived much of their authority from the endorsement – implicit or explicit – of the state.

In the process the state placed at risk the principle of its historical existence, namely the presumption that the identity of Prussia proceeded from the dominion of a dynasty whose sun shone (albeit with varying warmth) on all subjects. Throughout the early to mid nineteenth century, Prussian administrations had recognized in German nationalism a powerful solvent of the dynastic principle. Yet by the turn of the century, the ascendancy of the national paradigm was incontestable. Nationalist historians busied themselves rewriting the history of Prussia as the eastward expansion of Germanic dominion and Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow (a Mecklenburger, not a native Prussian) did not scruple to stand before the Prussian Landtag and justify anti-Polish measures on the grounds that Prussia was and always would be a German ‘national state’.47

The Prussian Jews also felt the impact of these developments. There was, of course, no question in the Jewish case of forcing the pace of cultural assimilation (a goal the great majority of Prussian Jews had already enthusiastically embraced) or of repressing ambitions for secession or political independence. What mattered most to the Jewish communities of nineteenth-century Germany was the removal of their ancient legal disabilities. This had already been achieved on the eve of political unification: the Confederal Law (valid throughout the North German Confederation) of 3 July 1869 explicitly stated that all curtailments of civil and citizenship rights that derived from differences of creed were henceforth abolished. It seemed that the long journey to legal emancipation that had begun with the Hardenberg edict of March 1812 was at last complete.

One important doubt remained. The Prussian government continued to discriminate against Jewish applicants to public office. Jews found it extremely difficult to achieve promotion into the upper ranks of the judiciary, for example, despite the disproportionate presence of Jews among lawyers, court clerks and assistant judges and the strong performance of Jewish candidates in the key state examinations. The same applied to most branches of the senior civil service, as well as other important state-funded institutions of cultural significance such as primary schools, the secondary Gymnasien and the universities. Between 1885 and the outbreak of the First World War, moreover, no Jew was promoted to reserve officer status in Prussia, nor in the other German states whose military contingents were subordinate to the Prussian army (Bavaria retained a measure of military autonomy and operated a more open promotions policy).48

This discrimination by the state authority was all the more conspicuous for the fact that it represented something of an anomaly within the Prussian political landscape. Jews had no difficulty in being elected to important political and administrative posts in many large Prussian cities, where as high taxpayers they benefited from restrictive franchises. Jews held a substantial proportion (as many as a quarter) of council seats in the city of Breslau and could hold any position in the city administration except those of mayor and deputy, which were in the gift of the central state authorities in Berlin.49 In Königsberg, Jewish residents flourished in an urban environment marked by easy inter-communal relations and ‘cultural pluralism’. In many of the larger Prussian cities, Jews became core constituents of the urban Bürgertum, participating fully in its political and cultural life.50

The inequitable handling of appointments in the state sector generated a deep sense of grievance among politically aware and active Jews in Prussia.51 The process of emancipation had always been intimately bound up with the state. To be emancipated was to ‘enter into the life of the state’, as Christian Wilhelm von Dohm had put it in his influential tract of 1781. Moreover, the constitutional position was clear: imperial law stipulated that any discrimination on faith grounds was illegal. The Prussian constitution stated (art. 12) that all Prussians were equal before the law and (art. 4) that public offices were equally accessible to all equally qualified persons. Only in the case of public offices involving religious observance was it admissible to favour Christian candidates. The surest way for the Jewish minority to safeguard its rights was thus to hold the state authority to the letter and spirit of its own law.52

Pressed by left-liberal parliamentary deputies to give an account of themselves, Prussian ministers either denied that such discrimination took place, or sought to justify it. They argued, for example, that the government must take into account the mood of the population when making sensitive public appointments. In a Landtag debate over judicial appointments in 1901, the Prussian minister of justice, Karl Heinrich von Schönstedt, declared that he could not ‘when appointing notaries, simply treat Jewish advocates on the same basis as Christian ones, since the broadest strata of the population are not willing to have their affairs managed by Jewish notaries’.53 The Prussian minister of war, von Heeringen, made a veiled appeal to the same logic when he replied to a Reichstag enquiry of February 1910 concerning the exclusion of Jewish volunteers from reserve officer promotions. In appointing a commanding officer, he declared, the army must look to more than simply ‘ability, knowledge and character’. Other ‘imponderable’ factors were also in play:

The entire personality of the man concerned, the way he stands in front of the troops, must inspire respect. Now far be it from me to claim [… ] that this is missing in our Jewish fellow citizens. But on the other hand, we cannot deny that a different view prevails among the lower orders.54

This readiness to accommodate ‘public opinion’ also left its mark in other areas. In the early 1880s, for example, the Prussian ministry of the interior intervened in support of anti-Semitic student associations, undercutting the predominantly liberal university administrations that were trying to suppress them.55 At around the same time, the Prussian administration also began to tighten its policy on the naturalization of foreign Jews: this was the background to the extraordinary expulsion of over 30,000 non-naturalized Poles and Jews in 1885.

Under pressure from anti-Semitic agitation and petitions, the Prussian government even began during the 1890s to prevent Jewish citizens from adopting Christian family names. Anti-Semites objected to Jewish name-changing on the racist grounds that it created confusion about who was Jewish and who was not. The Prussian state authorities (especially the conservative minister of the interior Botho von Eulenburg) adopted the anti-Semitic viewpoint, departing from established policy to discriminate specifically against Jewish applicants.56 The same logic was at work in the ‘Jew Count’ (Judenzählung) ordered by the Prussian ministry of war in October 1916 with a view to establishing how many Jews were in active service on the front line.57 National anti-Semitic organizations such as the Reichshammerbund (founded in 1912) had long been propagating the claim that the German Jews were war profiteers who were not pulling their weight in the defence of the fatherland. From the outbreak of the war and particularly from the end of 1915, they bombarded the Prussian ministry of war with anonymous denunciations and complaints.

Having for some time disregarded these protests, the Prussian minister of war, Wild von Hohenborn, decided to mount a statistical survey of Jews in the armed forces. In a decree of 11 October 1916 announcing the survey, the minister referred to allegations that the majority of Jewish servicemen had managed to avoid combat by securing posts well behind the front line. Although the results confirmed that Jews were in fact well represented in front-line units, the decree dismayed Jewish contemporaries, especially those whose relatives or comrades were at that moment fighting in the German trenches. It was, as one Jewish writer recalled at the end of the war, ‘the most indelibly shameful insult that has dishonoured our community since its emancipation’.58

There were, of course, limits to the state’s tolerance of anti-Semitism. In 1900, an anti-Jewish riot broke out in the West Prussian town of Konitz after the discovery of a macabrely dismembered corpse near the house of a Jewish butcher. Anti-Semitic journalists (mainly from Berlin) lost no time in levelling charges of ‘ritual murder’ against the butcher, and they were followed in this by a number of credulous townsfolk, most of them Poles. However, none of the Prussian judges or investigating police involved in the case ever placed any credence in the allegation, and the authorities lost no time in suppressing the unrest and punishing the main offenders.59 Emancipation was treated as an accomplished fact by official Prussia and no serious attention was ever given to the idea – much urged by the anti-Semites – of returning to the era of legal discrimination. Jews continued to play prominent roles in Prussian public life, as parliamentarians, journalists, entrepreneurs, theatre directors, municipal officials, as personal associates of the Emperor and even as ministers and members of the upper house of the Prussian Landtag.

Yet the Jews were surely right to view with alarm the state’s reluctance to enforce more energetically the letter of the constitution. It was one thing for the traditional Protestant agrarian oligarchies to cling to their accustomed share of government patronage (which of course they did); it was another somewhat more ominous thing for the state authorities to invoke the ‘mood of the population’ as grounds for departing from constitutional practice or the principle of equitable administration. In doing so, they allowed the anti-Semites to set the terms of the debate. There was an irony here, because whereas the Jews were among the foremost friends of the state, the anti-Semites were without question among its most implacable enemies. For them, the very word ‘state’ possessed connotations of artificiality and machine-like impersonality, in contrast to the organic, natural attributes associated with the Volk. The only acceptable form of state organization was that which demoted the apparatus of the state to an instrument for the self-empowerment of the Volk – an ethnic, not a political, entity.60 Herein lies the parallel with Polish policy. Poles and Jews were fundamentally different social groups in almost every conceivable way, but they both presented the conservative elites that ran Prussia with policy domains in which the political logic of the modern state, conceived as a zone of undifferentiated legal authority, conflicted with the ethnic logic of the nation. In both cases, it was the idea of the (Prussian) state that gave way and the ideology of the (German) nation that prevailed.


The creation of the German Empire confronted the Hohenzollern dynasty with a complex task of adjustment. The King of Prussia was now also the German Kaiser. What exactly this would mean in practice remained unclear during the early years after unification. The new German constitution had little to say about the role of the Kaiser. The liberal nationalist Frankfurt constitution of 1848 had included a section entitled ‘The head of the Reich’, which dealt exclusively with the imperial office. There was no such section in the German constitution of 1871. The powers of the Emperor were set out in section IV under the modest rubric ‘the presidency of the Federal Council’. These and other passages in the document made it clear that the Kaiser was no more than one German prince among others, a primus inter pares, whose powers derived from his special place within the federal body rather than from any claim to direct dominion over the territory of the Reich. It followed that his official designation was not ‘Emperor of Germany’, as Kaiser William I would personally have preferred, but ‘German Emperor’. There were distant echoes here of the limited sovereignty implied in the eighteenth-century title ‘King in Prussia’; then as now, allowance had to be made for the other sovereigns whose sphere of authority overlapped with that of the new office.

In the relationship between chancellor and Emperor-king, it was generally Bismarck who had the upper hand. William I did assert himself on occasions, and he was no ‘shadow figure’, but he could generally be pressed, bullied, blackmailed or cajoled into agreement with Bismarck on matters of importance. William I had not wanted the war against Austria and he disapproved of the chancellor’s political campaign against the Catholics. When there were disagreements, Bismarck could unleash the full force of his personality, hammering his arguments home with tears, rages and threats of resignation. It was these scenes, which the Kaiser found almost intolerable, that moved him to make the famous observation: ‘It is hard being Emperor under Bismarck.’ There was no false modesty in the Emperor’s observation, on another occasion, that ‘he is more important than I.’61

The effect of Bismarck’s dominance, both as a political manager and as a national figurehead, was to retard the expansion of the Prussian throne into its imperial role. William I was a hugely respectable and widely revered man, a figure with the gravitas and whiskers of a biblical patriarch. But he was in his seventies when the Reich was proclaimed and essentially remained a Prussian king until his death at the age of ninety in 1888. He rarely spoke in public and seldom journeyed outside the territory of his kingdom. He retained the thrifty habits of an East-Elbian Junker: he resisted the installation of hot-water baths in the Berlin palace on the grounds of cost, for example, preferring to bathe once a week in a watertight leather bag slung from a frame that had to be carted over from a nearby hotel. He marked the labels on liquor bottles to prevent tippling on the sly by the servants at court. Old uniforms were made to do long service. After signing state papers, William would wipe the wet nib of his pen on the dark blue sleeve of his jacket. He made a point of eschewing carriages with rubber tyres on the grounds that they were an unnecessary luxury. There was an element of self-conscious performance in all of this – the king aspired to be the personification of Prussian simplicity, self-discipline and thrift. Every day he would appear punctually at the corner window of his study to oversee the changing of the guard – this reinvention of an old Prussian tradition became one of the great tourist attractions of Berlin.62

William I’s son and successor, Frederick III, was a charismatic man with strong ties to the German liberal movement. He was also respected for the important command role he had played in the wars of unification. Given the chance, he might well have become a genuinely national-imperial monarch. But by the time Frederick came to the throne in March 1888, he was already dying of throat cancer and had only three months to live. He remained bedridden for much of his reign, reduced by his condition to communicating in scribbled notes with his family and staff.

In 1888, then, when William II came to the throne, the office of emperor was like a house in which most of the rooms had never been occupied. His arrival inaugurated a style revolution in the management of the German imperial monarchy. From the very beginning, William II saw himself as a public figure. He was fastidiously attentive to his outward appearance, rapidly alternating uniforms and outfits to match specific occasions, training his famous moustaches to trembling stiffness with a special patented wax and affecting a grave official countenance during public ceremonies. The obsession with outward presentation extended to close management of the Empress, the former Princess Auguste-Viktoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg. William not only provided designs for her clothes, her distinctive jewels and extravagant hats, but also pressured her to maintain her hourglass waist by means of dieting, drugs and corsetry.63 He was the first German monarch to live and work in close proximity – one might even say symbiosis – with photographers and cameramen. They filmed him during public appearances and on family occasions, they filmed him on manoeuvres and riding to the hunt; they even followed him on to the royal yacht. Contemporary films of this Kaiser, of which there are many, show him always surrounded by the winding cranks of the movie cameras.

William II was, in other words, a media monarch, perhaps the first European monarch truly to deserve this epithet. More than any of his predecessors or, indeed, than any of his contemporary colleagues, he courted the attention of the public. The aim was not simply to draw attention to himself, though there is no doubt that this Emperor was a deeply narcissistic individual, but to fulfil the national and imperial promise of his office. He promoted the German navy, the genuinely national alternative to the Prussian-dominated army, lending his support to fund-raising campaigns and presiding at the massive naval reviews that were held annually at Kiel. He attempted, with mixed results, to establish a national cult around the figure of his grandfather William the Great, the founder of the Empire. He travelled across the Empire, opening hospitals, christening ships, visiting factories and observing parades. And, most of all, he gave speeches.


51. Dressed in the relatively austere uniform of the II Guards Regiment, Kaiser William II walks with his family in the grounds of Sans Souci. Painting by Wilhelm Friedrich Georg Pape, 1891.

No Hohenzollern monarch had ever spoken as often and as directly to so many large gatherings of his subjects as William II. He treated the Germans to a virtually uninterrupted flow of public utterances. During the six-year period from January 1897 until December 1902, for example, he made at least 233 visits to at least 123 German towns and cities, in most of which he gave addresses that were subsequently published and discussed in the regional and national press. William’s speeches, at least until 1908, were not set-pieces prepared for him by professional writers. The men of the civil cabinet busied themselves researching and writing up texts for specific places and occasions, sometimes pasting a final printed version to a wooden reading-board that was passed to the Emperor when the moment arrived, but their work was largely in vain – William preferred to speak without assistance. By contrast with his father, who as crown prince had always written out his texts beforehand and then ‘changed them over and over again’, William only rarely prepared his speeches in advance.64 They were consciously performed as impromptu, unmediated acts of communication.

The Kaiser’s most flamboyant performances were like nineteenth-century history paintings – charged with heavy-handed symbolic imagery, in which tempests alternated with shafts of redeeming light where all about was dark, and sublime figures (often members of his own dynasty) floated above the petty conflicts of the day. The aim was to ‘charismatize’ the monarchy and invoke the kind of transcendent, sovereign vantage point from which an emperor should reign over his people. A central theme was the historical continuity of the Hohenzollern dynasty and its Prusso-German mission.65 There was an emphasis on the imperial monarchy as the ultimate guarantor of the unity of the Empire, the point at which ‘historical, confessional and economic oppositions may be reconciled’.66 Lastly, the providential dimension of monarchy was a leitmotif that ran through all the speeches of his reign. God had established him in this exalted office in order to fulfil God’s plan for the German nation. During a very characteristic address delivered in the Rathaus at Memel in September 1907, he urged his audience to remember that ‘the hand of divine providence’ was at work in the great historical achievements of the German people: ‘and if our Lord God did not have in store for us some great destiny in the world, then he wouldn’t have bestowed such magnificent traits and abilities upon our people.’67

The public resonance of William’s speeches was mixed. One central difficulty was that the people who heard his words and those who read them were not the same people. Live audiences were easily impressed. But words that seemed appropriate, or even rousing, before a rustical assembly of Junkers in Brandenburg might appear less so when they appeared in the broadsheets of Munich and Stuttgart. Early in 1891, William told a gathering of Rhenish industrialists in Düsseldorf that ‘the Reich has but one leader and I am he.’ The remark was intended as a stab at Bismarck, who had begun after his retirement to snipe at the Kaiser in the press and was known to be popular among Rhenish industrial circles, but it also caused unintended offence to those in non-Prussian Germany who saw it as a slight to the federal princes. After all, they too were ‘rulers in the Reich’.68

The fact was that William II’s public office was an awkward composite of distinct identities. When he spoke each year to the annual dinner of the Brandenburg Diet, an occasion he was especially fond of, he was in the habit of styling himself ‘Margrave’ in order to invoke the unique historical ties between his dynasty and its home province.69 It was a harmless if somewhat self-dramatizing gesture that went down well with the conservative backwoodsmen of the Brandenburg Diet, but it was deeply unpalatable fare to the south Germans who pored over the published texts of such speeches in the daily press on the following day. The Emperor’s close friend and adviser Philipp zu Eulenburg, who was posted as the Prussian envoy in Munich, explained the problem in a letter of March 1892:

The great eloquence and the manner and style of Your Majesty exert a captivating influence upon listeners and audience – as the mood among the Brandenburgers after Your Majesty’s speech has once again proven. But in the hands of the German professor, a cool assessment of the content gives a different picture… Here in Bavaria, people are ‘beside themselves’ when Your Majesty speaks as ‘Margrave’, and ‘the Margrave’s Words’ are printed in the Reichs anzeiger [Imperial Gazette] – as words, so to speak, of the emperor. In the Imperial Gazette, members of the empire expect to hear imperial words – they don’t care for Frederick the Great (who referred to Bavaria, as they know only too well, as ‘a paradise inhabited by animals’ and so forth); and they don’t care for Rossbach and Leuten.’70

The relationship between the imperial crown and the Bavarian state was a persistent source of tension. In November 1891, during a visit to Munich, William II was asked to make an entry in the official visitors’ book of the city. For reasons that remain unclear, he chose to inscribe the text ‘suprema lex regis voluntas’ (the will of the king is the highest law). The choice of citation may well have been linked with a conversation the Kaiser was having at the time when he was asked to sign the book, but it soon acquired an unexpected notoriety. Once again, it was Eulenburg who pointed out the blunder:

It is not for me to ask why Your Majesty wrote these words, but I would be committing a cowardly injustice if I did not write of the ill effects that this text has had in south Germany, where Your Majesty has stationed me to keep watch. [… ] People here discern in it [the assertion of] a kind of personal imperial will over and above the Bavarian will. All parties, without exception, were offended by the words of Your Majesty, and the remark seemed perfectly made to be exploited against Your Majesty in the most disgraceful way.71

When south German cartoonists sought to disparage the Kaiser’s imperial pretensions, they almost invariably did so by drawing him as an emphatically and incorrigibly Prussian figure. A wonderful drawing for Simplicissimus of 1909 by the Munich-based cartoonist Olaf Gulbransson shows William II in conversation with the Bavarian regent at the annual imperial manoeuvres. The setting was in itself charged with significance, because the relationship between the Prussian-imperial and the Bavarian army was a highly sensitive issue in Munich. The caption reads: ‘His Majesty explains enemy positions to Prince Ludwig of Bavaria.’ The stereotypical Prusso-Bavarian contrasts are exquisitely captured in the postures and clothing of the two figures. While William stands ramrod-straight in his immaculate uniform and spiked helmet, in cavalry boots that gleam like columns of polished ebony, Prince Ludwig resembles a human bean-bag. Loose trousers crumple shapelessly down his legs and a whiskery face peers bewilderedly from behind a pince-nez. Everything that is erect and dominant in the Prussian is cosily flaccid in the Bavarian.72

William II was, it must be said, singularly ill-suited to the communicative tasks of his office. He found it impossible to express himself in the sober measured diction that the politically informed public clearly expected of him. The texts of his speeches made easy targets for ridicule. They appeared excessive, pompous, megalomaniacal. They ‘overshot the target’, as one senior government figure observed.73 Images and phrases from his speeches were often picked up and turned against him in the satirical press. Neither William I nor Bismarck had ever been ridiculed with such intensity (though closer parallels can be found in contraband depictions of Frederick William IV around the time of the 1848 revolutions). The legal sanctions against lèse-majesté, such as the confiscation of journal numbers or the prosecution and imprisonment of authors and editors, were extensively applied, but they were counterproductive, since they generally had the effect of boosting circulation figures and transforming persecuted journalists into national celebrities.74 Efforts to control the form in which the Emperor’s remarks reached the broader public proved futile.75William II travelled so frequently and spoke in such a great variety of places and contexts that it was virtually impossible to control the diffusion of information about his utterances. The Kaiser’s infamous ‘Huns Speech’ in Bremerhaven on 27 July 1900 was a case in point. On this occasion, ugly sound bites from a tasteless improvised speech to troops preparing to embark for China made it into print despite the best efforts of the officials present, stirring uproar in press and parliament.76 The Kaiser – like many a modern celebrity – had learned how to court, but not how to control the media.


52. ‘Imperial Manoeuvres’. Caricature by Olaf Gulbransson from Simplicissimus, 20 September 1909.

The imperial office lacked, as we have seen, a secure foundation in the German constitution. It also lacked a political tradition. There was, most strikingly, no imperial coronation. William II recognized this deficit. He saw more clearly than his predecessors how completely the Prussian Crown had failed to establish itself as a point of reference in the public life of the German Empire. He came to the throne determined to fill out the imperial dimension of his office. He travelled constantly among the German states; he glorified his grandfather as the warrior-saint who had built a new dwelling for the German people, and he instigated new public holidays and memorial observances to shroud, as it were, the constitutional and cultural nakedness of the Prussian throne in the mantle of a national history. He projected himself to the German public as the personification of the ‘imperial idea’. In this unceasing effort to create the imperial crown as a political and symbolic reality in the minds of Germans, the speeches played a crucial role. They were instruments of ‘rhetorical mobilization’ that secured for the Kaiser-king a unique prominence in German public life.77For William personally, they offered compensation for the situation of political constraint and disempowerment in which he so often found himself. Indeed, they were, as Walther Rathenau, author of one of the most insightful reflections on this monarch, observed in 1919, the single most effective instrument of his imperial sovereignty.78

How successful William was in achieving his objective is another question. On the one hand, the more striking indiscretions provoked waves of hostile published comment. As the most visible (or audible) sign of the sovereign’s independence, they became the primary focal point for the political critique of ‘personal rule’.79 Over the longer term, their effect was a gradual erosion of the political status of pronouncements from the throne. It became increasingly common, especially after 1908, for the government to disassociate itself entirely from unwelcome speeches on the grounds that these were not binding programmatic utterances, but simply personal expressions of opinion by the monarch, a disclaimer implying that the political views of the Emperor were of no wider political consequence.80 As the Viennese correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung observed in 1910, a comparison between William II and Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria-Hungary revealed how counterproductive was William’s over-use of the public word: the Habsburg dynast, it was noted, was a ‘silent emperor’ who always distinguished between his private person and his public office and never used the public forum to make personal utterances of any kind, and yet ‘anyone who tries in Austria to talk about their emperor as we hear [ours] discussed at every table in Germany will soon be in serious trouble.’81

It is, on the other hand, notoriously difficult to get the measure of public opinion, and we should be wary of any judgement that relies exclusively on newspaper commentaries –‘published opinion’ and ‘public opinion’ are not the same thing. The Emperor may have lost ‘the aura of the sovereign who is above criticism,’ wrote one foreign observer in the autumn of 1908, when William II was engulfed in a scandal over tactless utterances published in the London Daily Telegraph. ‘But with all the personal magnetism that he possesses, he will always retain an immense ascendancy in the eyes of the mass of his subjects.’82 William’s invocations of divine providence were the laughing stock of the quality papers, but they struck a sympathetic chord with the more plebeian theological tastes of many humbler Germans. By the same token, his outspoken denunciations of avant-garde art appeared ludicrous and retrograde to the cultural intelligentsia, but made sense to those more numerous cultural consumers who believed that art ought to provide escapism and edification.83 In Bavaria, the ceremonies of the ‘imperial cult’ (parades, unveilings and the jubilee celebrations of 1913) attracted the mass attendance not only of the middle classes, but also of peasants and tradesmen.84 Even within the Social Democratic milieu of the industrial regions, there appears to have been a gulf between the critical perspective of the SPD elite and that of the mass of SPD supporters, among whom the Emperor was perceived as the embodiment of a ‘patriarchal-providential principle’.85 The conversations recorded by police informers in the taverns of Hamburg’s working-class districts registered some disparaging, but also many supportive and even affectionate comments about ‘our William’.86 Substantial (if not precisely quantifiable) reserves of imperial-royalist capital did accumulate in German society. It would take the social transformations and political upheavals of a world war to consume them.


On 16 October 1906, a down-and-out drifter by the name of Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt pulled off an extraordinary heist in Berlin. Voigt had spent much of his life in prison. Having left school at the age of fourteen following a conviction for theft, he had taken an apprenticeship with his father, a cobbler in Tilsit on the eastern margins of the Prussian state. Between 1864 and 1891, he was convicted on six occasions for theft, robbery and forgery, for which he spent a total of twenty-nine years behind bars. In February 1906, after serving a fifteen-year sentence for robbery, he was a free man once again. Having been refused a residence permit by the Berlin police authorities, he settled illegally in a tenement near the Schlesischer Bahnhof railway station, where he found a place as a ‘night-lodger’, sleeping in a bed that was occupied during the daylight hours by a factory worker on night-shift.

During the second week of October 1906, Voigt assembled the uniform of a captain of the I Foot Guards Regiment from garments and equipment purchased in second-hand shops across Potsdam and Berlin. On the morning of 16 October, he collected his uniform from where he had deposited it in the left-luggage store at Beusselstrasse station and walked to the Jungfernheide Park to change clothes. Attired as a Prussian captain, he headed downtown by S-Bahn. At around midday, when the guards were changing across the city, Voigt stopped a detachment of four soldiers and a non-commissioned officer who were on their way back to barracks from doing guard duty at the military swimming baths on Plötzensee. The NCO ordered his men to stand to attention while Voigt informed them that he was taking command under the authority of a cabinet order from the king. Having dismissed the NCO, Voigt collected a further six guardsmen returning from duty at a nearby rifle range and led ‘his’ troops to Putlitzstrasse station, where they all caught a train to Köpenick. On the way he treated them to beer from a station kiosk.

Arriving at the council chambers, Voigt placed guards at the main entrances and made his way with some troops to a suite of administrative offices where he ordered the arrest of the senior city secretary, Rosenkranz, and the mayor, Dr Georg Langerhans. Langerhans, who was himself a lieutenant in the reserve, leapt to his feet at the sight of Voigt’s epaulettes and made no attempt to resist when he was told he was to be escorted under guard to Berlin. The council police inspector was found snoring in his office – it was a warm autumn afternoon in this quiet suburban district – and Voigt treated him to a stern reprimand. The municipal cashier von Wildberg was ordered to open the cashbox and transfer the entire contents – 4,000 marks and 70 pfennig – to Voigt, who presented him with a receipt for the sequestered sum. Voigt ordered a detachment of his guards to escort the arrested officials to Berlin by rail and report to the military post at the Neue Wache in Unter den Linden. Minutes later, he was seen leaving the building in the direction of Köpenick station, where he disappeared from view. He later revealed that he spent the next hour getting back to Berlin, shedding his military clothes and settling himself in a city café with a view of the Neue Wache. From here he was able to watch the confusion unfold as the guards arrived with their bewildered prisoners. On 1 December 1906, after spending six weeks at large, he was arrested and sentenced to four years of imprisonment.

Voigt’s exploit generated huge contemporary interest. Within days it was being lampooned on the stage of the Metropol theatre. There was extensive international press coverage. The story of the conman in captain’s uniform who walked away with the Köpenick council cashbox under his arm soon established itself as one of the most beloved and enduring fables of modern Prussia. It was dramatized for the stage in numerous versions, the most famous being Carl Zuckmayr’s wonderful Hauptmann von Köpenick of 1931, and later adapted for the screen in a sparkling and atmospheric film starring the amiable Heinz Rühmann in the eponymous role. Among those who profited from the story’s popularity was the perpetrator himself. Voigt was freed from Tegel prison after serving less than half of his sentence, thanks to a royal pardon from William II. Within four days of his release, he was making public appearances in the Passagenpanoptikum, a gallery of urban amusements on the corner of Friedrich and Behrensstrasse in the centre of Berlin. Having been forbidden to make further such appearances by the Prussian authorities, he mounted a highly successful tour to Dresden, Vienna and Budapest, where he was already a celebrity. Over the next two years, Voigt appeared in nightclubs and restaurants and at fairs, where he retold his story and signed postcards bearing his photograph as the Captain of Köpenick. In 1910, there were further tours in Germany, Britain, America and Canada. Such was his notoriety that he was modelled in wax for Madame Tussaud’s gallery in London. From the sales of his memoirs, How I Became the Captain of Köpenick, published in Leipzig in 1909, Voigt acquired sufficient means to purchase a house in Luxembourg, where he settled permanently in 1910. He remained in Luxembourg throughout the First World War and died in 1922.87

At one level, of course, this was a parable about the power of a Prussian uniform. Voigt himself was an unimpressive figure whose appearance bore all the marks of a life spent in poverty and confinement – a police report based on witness accounts described the hoaxer as ‘thin’, ‘pale’, ‘elderly’, ‘stooped’, ‘bent sideways’ and ‘bow-legged’. It was, as one journalist remarked, the uniform rather than its weatherbeaten inhabitant that carried off the crime. Seen in this light, Voigt’s tale evokes a social setting marked by a servile respect for military authority. This message was not lost on contemporaries: French journalists saw in it further evidence of the blind and mechanical obedience for which the Prussians were famed; The Times commented smugly that this was the kind of thing that could happen only in Germany.88 By this reading, the captain’s story was a concentrated exposé of Prussia’s militarism.

But the fascination of the episode surely lies in its ambivalence. Voigt’s exploit began with obedience, but it ended with laughter.89 No sooner had he walked off with the cash, but his crime was a media event. The papers in and around Berlin described it as an ‘unheard-of trickster’s exploit’, ‘a robber’s tale as adventurous and romantic as any novel’ and conceded that it was impossible to reflect on it without smiling; Voigt was described as ‘cheeky’, ‘brazen’, ‘clever’ and ‘ingenious’. The Social Democrat newspaper Vorwärts! reported that the ‘hero’s deed’ was the talk of the town; in restaurants, in the streetcars and trains the ‘heroic exploit’ was discussed: ‘It’s not that one expresses indignation over the robbery of the Köpenick municipal treasury – instead the tone is mocking, sarcastic; everywhere a certain gleefulness over the ingenious prank at Köpenick refuses to be suppressed.’90 Quick-witted entrepreneurs published mass-produced ‘sympathy postcards’ with before-and-after depictions of Voigt as cobbler and captain. Purchasers were informed that a portion of the income generated by their sale would go to a local society for the care of prisoners or even to Voigt himself.91 It was precisely the comedic, subversive element of the story that Voigt so skilfully exploited in his memoirs and theatrical performances. As a media event, the captain’s exploit was nothing short of a disaster for the Prussian military. It was, as the socialist journalist and historian Franz Mehring put it, a ‘second Jena’.92

The roots of this laughter are not difficult to discern. The butt of the joke was Prussian ‘militarism’. But what exactly did this term mean? The word first passed into general circulation as a liberal anti-absolutist slogan during the constitutional struggle of the early 1860s and it never lost these liberal connotations. In the south German states, the term ‘militarism’ was widely used in the later 1860s, almost always with an anti-Prussian charge.93‘Militarism’ meant the Prussian system of universal conscription (as opposed to the arrangement still operating in the south, where wealthy subjects could purchase exemption from service), or the payment of matricular contributions for the upkeep of the national army, or the assertion more generally of Prussian hegemony over the southern states. For left-liberals, militarism could mean high taxes and potentially unchecked state expenditure. For some national liberals, anti-militarism captured echoes of the militia romanticism that had driven the reforms of the Napoleonic era. For the Marxist analysts of the Social Democratic movement, militarism was an expression of the violence and repression latent in capitalism. Precisely because it channelled and focused multiple preoccupations in changing combinations, ‘militarism’ became one of the foremost ‘semantic rallying-points’ in modern German political culture.94 In whatever sense it was used, it drew attention to the structural connections between the military and the wider social and political system in which it was embedded.

The army was without a doubt one of the central institutions of Prussian life after 1871. Its presence was felt in everyday life to an extent that would be unimaginable today. The army, whose public standing had been low for much of the nineteenth century, emerged from the wars of unification in a nimbus of glory. Its role in the foundation of the new Germany was commemorated throughout the imperial era in the annual Sedan Day festivals that recalled the victory over France. The military establishment acquired a new kind of public resonance. Its prestige found expression in the imposing buildings that sprang up in garrison towns to accommodate serving troops and regimental administrations. There was an elaborate culture of military display in the form of parades, marching bands and manoeuvres. Military men took pride of place in virtually every official public festivity.95 And the proliferation of military imagery and symbols infiltrated the sphere of private life: the photograph in uniform was a prized possession, especially for recruits from poor rural families where photographs were still a costly rarity; the uniform was worn with pride, even on holiday; military insignia and medals were treasured as mementos of deceased male relatives. The Prussian Reserve officer commissions – there were some 120,000 by 1914 – were a hotly sought-after status symbol in bourgeois society (hence the efforts of former Jewish volunteers to secure access to the corps). School children in garrison towns sang martial songs and marched in their playgrounds. Huge numbers of former servicemen joined the rapidly growing veterans’ associations and military clubs; by 1913, the Kyffhäuser League, the central organization of veterans’ clubs in Germany, counted some 2.9 million members.96

In other words, the military wove itself more deeply into the fabric of everyday life after 1871. Assessing the precise significance of this fact is far from straightforward. According to one influential view, the militarization of Prussian-imperial society widened the gap between Germany and the western European states, stifling the critical and liberal energies of civil society, perpetuating a hierarchical approach to social relations and inculcating millions of Germans with political views that were reactionary, chauvinistic and ultra-nationalist.97 But was the Prussian experience really so unusual? Prussia was not alone in seeing an expansion of military cultures during the last four decades before the First World War. In France, too, veterans and servicemen flocked to join military clubs and associations – in numbers comparable with Prussia-Germany. A comparison of the militarization of national commemorations in France and Prussia-Germany after 1871 reveals close parallels.98

Even in Britain, a predominantly naval power that prided itself on the emphatically civilian quality of its political culture, the National Service League attracted some 100,000 members, including 177 members of the House of Commons. The league’s propaganda combined a paranoid perspective on questions of national security with racist presumptions about the superiority of the British race.99 In Britain, as in Germany, the late Victorian era saw a massive unfolding of imperial ceremonial. The ‘civility’ and anti-militarism of British society were perhaps more a matter of self-perception than a faithful representation of reality.100 It is also worth noting that the German peace movement developed on a scale unparalleled elsewhere. On Sunday 20 August 1911, 100,000 people gathered at a peace rally in Berlin to protest against the brinkmanship of the great powers over the Moroccan Crisis. There was a wave of similar protests in Halle, Elberfeld, Barmen, Jena, Essen and other German towns throughout the late summer, culminating in a mammoth peace rally in Berlin on 3 September, when 250,000 people thronged to the Treptow Park. The movement subsided somewhat in 1912–13, but at the end of July 1914, when war was clearly imminent, there were once again large peace rallies in Düsseldorf and Berlin. The response of the German public to the news of war was not, as used to be claimed, one of universal enthusiasm. On the contrary: the mood in the early days of August 1914 was muted, ambivalent and in some places fearful.101

‘Militarism’ was, moreover, a diffuse and internally fissured phenomenon. A distinction has to be drawn between the essentially aristocratic and conservative ethos of the Prussian officer corps and the very different identities and attachments involved in the ‘militarism of the little people’. The legendary corporate arrogance of the Prussian officer caste and its disdain for civilian values and norms were essentially a distillation of the old spirit of East-Elbian noble corporate exclusiveness admixed with the defensiveness and paranoia of a social group determined not to relinquish its traditional pre-eminence. By contrast, the ethos of many veterans’ clubs was plebeian and egalitarian. A study of soldiers from the annexed Prussian provinces of Hessen-Nassau who joined military clubs over the period 1871–1914 has shown that many of these were landless rural labourers, craftsmen and poor smallholders. They did not join out of enthusiasm for military service, but because membership provided a way of asserting their value, status and entitlements vis-à-vis the self-sufficient large-holding peasants who dominated their communities. Membership of the veterans’ club was thus a ‘vehicle of participation’. Viewed ‘from below’, what mattered about the military was not the imposition of deference between ranks, but the equality among men who served together.102

It was, in any case, the German navy, rather than the Prussian army, that captured popular enthusiasm for German national aggrandizement. Through his promotion of a massive naval construction programme from the late 1890s, Kaiser William II made his bid to establish himself as a genuinely national and German imperial ruler. The German naval programme soon attracted huge public support. By 1914, the German Fleet Association (Deutscher Flottenverein) counted over 1 million members, the great majority of them middle and lower-middle class. The navy was perceived as a genuinely national service, free of particularist territorial ties, with a relatively meritocratic approach to recruitment and promotions. The wave of technological innovations that transformed fleet-building around the turn of the century also attracted interest; ships were exciting because they were at the cutting-edge of what German science and industry could achieve. The fleet also carried the promise of a more expansive German global policy under the banner of Weltpolitik.

The army, by contrast, bore the burden of its association with the particularist power structure of Prussia. The most radical popular militarist organization of the pre-war years, the Defence Club (Wehrverein), whose membership numbered around 100,000 by the summer of 1914, was actually highly critical of the ‘conservative’ militarism of the Prussian elite, which they saw as reactionary, lethargic, narrow-minded and crippled by otiose class distinctions. They had a point: until 1913, parts of the Prussian military command opposed army expansion on the grounds that this would dilute the aristocratic esprit de corps of the officer caste by flooding the upper ranks with middle-class aspirants.103


The failure to integrate authority over civilian and military affairs had been one of the defining flaws of the Prussian constitution of 1848–50. The 1848 revolutions, as we have seen, constitutionalized Prussian politics without demilitarizing the Prussian monarchy. This was a flaw that the new German Empire inherited from the old Prussian state. The question of control over military spending remained unresolved. The constitution of 1871 stipulated on one hand (art. 63) that ‘the Emperor determines the effective strength, the division and the arrangement of the contingents of the Reich army’, and on the other (art. 60) that ‘the effective strength of the army in peace will be determined by legislation of the Reichstag.’104 The indeterminacy of these arrangements gave rise to periodic conflicts between the executive and the legislature. Of the four Reichstag dissolutions decreed during the life of the Empire (1878, 1887, 1893, 1907), three occurred for reasons related to the control of military expenditure.105

The Prussian army remained a praetorian guard under the personal command of the king, largely shielded from parliamentary scrutiny. The executive organs of the German military in turn remained embedded in the sovereign institutions of the old Prussian state. There was, for example, no imperial minister of war, just a Prussian one with responsibility for imperial military affairs. The Prussian minister of war was appointed by the Emperor (in his capacity as King of Prussia) and swore an oath of loyalty to the Prussian, but not the imperial, constitution. He was responsible to the Kaiser in most matters, but answerable in budgetary questions to the Reichstag. Yet he appeared before this body not as Prussian minister of war (for this post was formally quite unconnected to the imperial legislature) but in his complementary role as a Prussian plenipotentiary to the Federal Council.

As for the organs that administered the army in peacetime and at war, these were completely independent from the structures of civil authority. The military cabinet, the body responsible for personnel decisions (appointments and promotions), formally separated itself from the Prussian ministry of war in 1883, as did the Great General Staff, which was entrusted in the event of war with overall control of the operations of the field army.106 Both henceforth reported directly to the monarch himself. Rather than establishing authoritative organs of central military governance, William II further fragmented the command structure by creating, just a few weeks after his accession, a new military establishment known by the grandiloquent title ‘Headquarters of His Majesty the Kaiser and King’.107 He also stepped up the number of military and naval command posts that reported directly to the Emperor.108 This was all part of a conscious strategy to create an environment that would permit the untrammelled exercise of the monarchical command function.109 The Prussian-German military system thus remained a foreign body within the German constitution, institutionally sealed off from the organs of civil governance and ultimately responsible only to the Emperor himself, who came to be known from around 1900 in general parlance as the ‘supreme warlord’.110 The result was a perennial uncertainty about the demarcation between civil and military authority. This was Prussia’s most fateful legacy to the new Germany.

Nowhere before 1914 were the potentialities of this ‘avoided decision’ at the heart of the Empire’s political fabric more disturbingly revealed than in the war of 1904–7 in German South-West Africa (modern Namibia), where an insurrection broke out in January 1904. By the middle of the month, groups of armed Herero had encircled Okahandja, a township in the centre-west of the colony, plundering farms and police stations, killing a number of settlers and cutting the telegraph and railway links to Windhoek, the administrative capital. The man charged with maintaining order in the colony was Governor Theodor Gotthilf von Leutwein, a native of Strümpfelbronn in the Grand Duchy of Baden who had been a serving soldier in the colony since 1893 and had held the post of governor since 1898. Finding himself unable to contain the uprising with the small local militia (there were fewer than 800 troops in a colony one and a half times the size of the German Empire), Leutwein requested that reinforcements be sent urgently from Berlin and that an experienced commander be despatched to take control of military operations.111 The Kaiser responded by sending Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha, descendant of a Prussian military family from Magdeburg, who had already held a number of overseas postings.

Although both men were career officers, they occupied quite different positions within the Prussian-German political structure. As governor, Leutwein was the senior civilian authority in the colony and reported to the Colonial Department of the Prussian Foreign Office, which in turn reported to the imperial chancellor and Prussian minister-president, Bernhard von Bülow. Trotha entered the colony in a purely military role: he was not directly answerable to the political authorities, but only to the General Staff, which reported directly to the Kaiser. In other words, Leutwein and Trotha were locked into two quite separate chains of command. The two men personified the civil–military fault-line that ran through the Prussian constitution.

The governor and the general soon found themselves at loggerheads over how to handle the insurgency. Leutwein’s intention had always been to manoeuvre the Herero by military means into a position where a negotiated surrender would be possible. His efforts and those of his subordinates focused on weakening the uprising by isolating the most determined element and negotiating separate settlements with other Herero groups. But General Trotha pursued a different approach. Having tried without success to encircle and destroy a large mass of Herero in a pitched battle at the Waterberg on 11–12 August 1904, he switched to a policy of genocide. On 2 October, the general had an official proclamation posted throughout the colony and read to the troops under German command. Composed in the pompous Wild West German of a Karl May novel, it closed with an unequivocal threat:

The people of the Herero must leave the country. If the people does not do this, I will force it to with the Big Pipe [artillery]. Within the German borders every male Herero who is found with or without a weapon, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will take no more children or women. Instead I will drive them back to their people or order them to be fired upon. These are my words to the People of the Herero. [Signed:] The great general of the Mighty German Kaiser112

This was not just an exercise in psychological warfare. In a letter composed two days later for his superiors on the Prussian General Staff, Trotha explained his actions. The ‘nation of the Herero’, he declared, were to be ‘annihilated as such’, or failing that, ‘removed from the territory’. Since a victory through straightforward military engagements appeared impossible, Trotha proposed instead to execute all captured Herero males and drive the women and children back into the desert area of the colony, where their death by thirst, starvation or disease was a virtual certainty. There was no point, he argued, in making exceptions for Herero women and children, since these would simply infect German troops with their diseases and increase the burden on water and food supplies. This insurrection, Trotha concluded, ‘is and remains the beginning of a racial struggle…’113

In a letter addressed to the Colonial Department of the Prussian Foreign Office at the end of October – in other words, to the civilian colonial authority in Berlin, Governor Leutwein defended his own very different view of the situation. As he saw it, Trotha had worsened the conflict in the colony by undermining the efforts of Leutwein’s subordinates to negotiate an end to the fighting. Had these initiatives been followed up, Leutwein argued, the insurgency might well already have been resolved. At the centre of the crisis was a problem of demarcation. In adopting an avowed policy of indiscriminate murder and displacement, Trotha had exceeded his competence as military commander.

I take the view that my rights as governor have been compromised. For the question of whether a people is to be destroyed or hunted across the borders is not a military question, but a political and economic one.114

In an exasperated telegram of 23 October 1904, Leutwein asked for ‘clarification of how much political power and responsibility still rest in the hands of the Governor’.115

The chancellor and Prussian minister-president, Bernhard von Bülow, shared Leutwein’s misgivings about Trotha’s extremism. The ‘comprehensive and planned extirpation’ of the Herero, Bülow informed the German Emperor, would be contrary to Christian and humanitarian principle, economically devastating and damaging to Germany’s international reputation. Yet although he was the most senior political figure in Prussia and the Empire, he had no authority over General Trotha or his superiors on the Prussian General Staff, and thus no means of resolving the crisis in the colony through direct intervention. Only in the person of the Kaiser did the civilian and military chains of command converge. In order to achieve his objectives, Bülow had thus to manoeuvre the Emperor into countermanding Trotha’s shooting order of 2 October. This was duly done, after a tug of war with the General Staff over various technical details, and a new imperial order was sent out to the colony on 8 December 1904. For the Herero, it was too late. By the time the order to stop shootings and forced displacements arrived, a substantial part of the indigenous population had already perished, most of them in the waterless areas of the Omaheke on the eastern side of the colony.116

The constitutional chasm between the civil and the (Prussian) military authority structures remained open throughout the life of the German Empire. It exacerbated the situation in Alsace-Lorraine, where civil administrators and corps commanders clashed over various issues, most famously the Zabern incident of October 1913, when insulting remarks by a young officer set off a train of minor clashes with the local population that culminated in the illegal arrest of some twenty citizens. The military had clearly overstepped the boundaries of their competence and there were loud protests from the civil authorities. But the Kaiser took the view that the prestige of ‘his’ army was at stake and openly supported the soldiers against the civilians. There was a national uproar over the case. Only with great difficulty did the chancellor succeed in persuading the Emperor to take disciplinary action against the main military culprits.117

Was there a specifically Prussian dimension to the war that broke out in August 1914? A war on two fronts, encirclement by a coalition of European powers – these had traditionally been Prussian, rather than Saxon, Badensian or Bavarian nightmares. Of all the nineteenth-century German states, only Prussia had to meet the challenge of exposed frontiers adjoining the territories of great powers in east and west. In this sense, the Schlieffen Plan, with its carefully weighted western and eastern spearheads, was an intrinsically Prussian device. To many contemporaries, moreover, it seemed obvious that the mobilization of 1914 belonged within a sequence of earlier Prussian ‘appointments with destiny’: 1870, 1813, 1756. Reference to these precedents cropped up everywhere in the public discussion that greeted the news of war in 1914. These invocations of continuity concealed, of course, the fact that the constellation of 1914 was born out of the fundamental changes wrought by German unification. This was a war of the German Empire, not of the Prussian state. When contemporaries invoked the ‘memory’ of earlier Prussian wars, they were in fact projecting the nationalist preoccupations of 1914 on to the Prussian past: 1813 was (falsely) remembered as a national German uprising against the French; Frederick the Great’s pre-emptive strike of 1756 was refashioned into a ‘German, even Pan-German’ feat of arms.118

There was nothing especially novel about this conflation of the Prussian with the German past – the century since the Napoleonic Wars had witnessed the gradual nationalization of Prussia’s most prestigious territorial symbols, from the Iron Cross to Frederick the Great and Queen Luise. Seen from this perspective, the history of Brandenburg-Prussia was merely an episode in a grander German story, whose early chapters recalled the antique cadences of the Song of the Nibelungs and the twisted oaks of the Teutoburg forest, where Hermann the Cheruskian had once defeated the armies of Rome. It is a telling detail that the first German victory in the east, the envelopment and destruction of the Russian 2nd Army on 26–31 August, was not named after one of the obscure East Prussian locales – Grünfliess, Omulefofen, Kurken – around which it actually took place but after Tannenberg, some thirty kilometres away to the west. The name was deliberately chosen in order to represent the battle as Germany’s answer to the defeat inflicted by the Polish and Lithuanian armies on the knights of the Teutonic Order at the ‘first’ battle of Tannenberg in 1410, an event that predated the existence of the Prussian kingdom and called to mind the era of medieval eastern Germanic colonization.

Far from consolidating a distinctive Prussian state identity, the experience of war had a corrosive effect, accentuating the primacy of the German national struggle, while at the same time exacerbating anti-Prussian sentiments in the most recently annexed provinces. The war toughened the sinews of the imperial executive, creating new and powerful trans-regional authorities and accelerating economic integration. It also heightened awareness of the nation as a community of solidarity by creating new relationships of interdependence: the damage and dislocation inflicted on East Prussia, for example, during the brief Russian occupation prompted a massive wave of charitable donations from across the Empire. Billeting, military service and the growth in nationally organized forms of relief and social provision all helped to deepen identification with the imagined community of all Germans. Even in Masuria, where attachments to the Hohenzollern state had traditionally been strong, ‘the last traces of the pre-national Prussian identity fell prey to an all-German patriotism.’119

On the other hand, the war stimulated regionalist resentments, even among serving troops. The monitoring of letters from front-line soldiers revealed that denigration of ‘the Prussians’ was common among Rhenish, Hanoverian, Hessian and even Silesian troop units. The same applied to an even greater degree to Bavarian troops – their despair at the duration and course of the war found expression in frequent outbursts of rage against the Prussians, whose arrogance and ‘megalomania’ were supposedly prolonging the war. A Bavarian police observer summarized the attitude of Bavarian soldiers returning from the front on leave: ‘After the war, we’ll talk French, but better French than Prussian, we’re sick and tired of that…’ Other reports from 1917 warned of intensified ‘hatred of Prussia’ within the civilian population of the south.120

The most important Prussian legacy to wartime Germany was constitutional in character. The problem of the German military constitution became even more acute after the outbreak of war. On the day of mobilization, the Prussian Law of Siege of 4 June 1851 came into effect for the entire Empire. Under this antique statute, the twenty-four army corps districts were placed under the authority of their respective deputy commanding generals, who were invested with near-dictatorial powers. The parallelism of civilian and military chains of command that had sown tension in Alsace-Lorraine before 1914 and delivered such mayhem in South-West Africa was now extended to the Empire as a whole. The results were inefficiency, wastage and disorder as the ‘twenty-odd shadow governments’ fought it out with the civil administrations across Germany (except in Bavaria, where the district commands were subject to the authority of the Bavarian ministry of war).121

At the apex of the German state, too, the military leadership exploited the Prussian defects in the system to usurp the powers of the civilian administration. The key figures behind the challenge were two archetypal products of the Prussian military establishment. Paul von Hindenburg und Beneckendorff (born in 1847) hailed from a Junker officer family in the province of Posen and had attended the cadet schools at Wahlstatt and Berlin. Erich Ludendorff (born in 1865) was the son of an estate owner in the same province who had been trained in the Royal Prussian Cadetten-Haus at Plön, Holstein and the cadet school at Gross-Lichterfelde near Berlin. Ludendorff was a jumpy, nervous workaholic prone to violent mood swings. Hindenburg, by contrast, was a towering, charismatic figure with bristling moustaches and an almost rectangular head; he radiated calm and confidence at all times. Ludendorff was the more brilliant tactician and strategist, but Hindenburg was the more gifted communicator. It was a supremely effective wartime partnership.122 Hindenburg had already retired from the army at the age of sixty-four in 1911, but he was recalled when war broke out and sent to East Prussia to command the German 8th Army against the Russians. After a brief period of service in Belgium, Ludendorff was sent to East Prussia to work with Hindenburg as his chief of staff. After two major victories over the Russian 2nd and 1st Armies at the battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes (26–30 August and 6–15 September 1914), Hindenburg was appointed supreme commander of German troops on the eastern front.

By the winter of 1914, a rift had opened within the German military command. Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of the General Staff and a favourite of the Emperor, argued that the key to ultimate success lay on the western front and was determined to commit the bulk of German resources to that sector. By contrast, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, emboldened by the scale of their success against the Russians, believed that the key to a German victory lay in the complete destruction of the Russian forces in the east. On 11 January 1915, Hindenburg – in a move unprecedented in the history of the Prussian army – threatened to resign unless Falkenhayn were dismissed. The resignation was refused and Falkenhayn remained in post, but the two eastern commanders gradually undermined his authority, pressuring William II into allowing a restructuring of the eastern command that substantially diminished the position of the staff chief. In the summer of 1916, William finally bowed to the inevitable, dismissed Falkenhayn, and appointed Hindenburg Chief of the General Staff, with Ludendorff as his quartermaster general.

There was a popular dimension to this ascendancy of the military leadership. A cult unfolded around the thick-set general; his likeness, with the unmistakable rectangular head, was endlessly reproduced and exhibited in public spaces. ‘Hindenburg statues’, wooden colossi erected in town squares and studded with devotional nails purchased with donations to the Red Cross, sprang up across Germany. Hindenburg seemed to answer the longing felt in some quarters during the war for a Führer whose authority and power over friend and foe alike would be absolute and undiluted. In the words of one prominent industrialist, what Germany needed in her darkest hour was ‘the strong man, who alone can save us from the abyss’.123 That neither William II nor Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg qualified for this role went without saying.

Having acquired the most powerful military post in the Empire by means of blackmail and insubordination, Hindenburg and Ludendorff now proceeded to undermine the authority of the civil leadership. One by one, they forced the Kaiser to dismiss ministers and senior aides who appeared antipathetic to their objectives. Early in July 1917, when they learned that the chancellor was in the process of preparing a franchise reform for Prussia, the two men travelled by train to Berlin to demand Bethmann Hollweg’s dismissal. At first the Emperor held firm: Bethmann remained in office and the Prussian franchise reforms were duly announced on 11 July. On the following day, in yet another spasm of insubordination, Hindenburg and Ludendorff telephoned their resignations to Berlin, insisting that they could no longer work with the chancellor. To save the Kaiser further agonizing, Bethmann resigned two days later. His departure marked a fundamental break in the political history of the Empire. Henceforth, the Emperor was largely at the mercy of the ‘Siamese twins’. The military command intervened extensively in civilian life, introducing new labour regulations and mobilizing the economy for total warfare. Germany remained under what was effectively a military dictatorship until the last days of the war.



The last days of the Prussian monarchy were attended by bathos rather than tragedy. William II had been shielded by his entourage from the worst news about the collapse of the German offensive of 1918. He was all the more shocked to learn from Ludendorff himself on 29 September that defeat was inevitable and imminent. William’s future as sovereign was now in question. During the last weeks of the war, the issue was increasingly widely discussed, especially after the censorship regulations were relaxed in mid-October. It acquired a heightened immediacy from the wording of the American note to the German government of 14 October, in which President Wilson referred to ‘the destruction of every arbitrary power anywhere that can [… ] disturb the peace of the world’, and added ominously that ‘the power which has hitherto controlled the German nation is of the sort here described. It is within the choice of the German nation to alter it.’124 Many Germans inferred from this communication that only wholesale removal of the Prussian-German monarchy would satisfy the Americans. There was a swelling chorus of calls for the Emperor’s abdication, and questions arose as to whether the monarch would be safe in the city of Berlin. On 29 October, William left the capital for the general headquarters at Spa. There were people close to him who argued that this was the only way to avoid abdication, and even that his presence at headquarters might revive German morale at the front and thus trigger a reversal of German fortunes.125 In reality, however, like the fateful flight to Varennes of the captive King Louis XVI, the move to Spa dealt a drastic blow to William’s prestige and that of his office.


53. ‘Buy War Bonds! Times are Hard, but Victory is Certain!’ Poster designed by Bruno Paul, 1917.

During the last week of his reign, an atmosphere of unreality permeated the royal-imperial entourage. Far-fetched plans received serious attention, including one proposal that William should redeem the dignity of the throne by sacrificing himself in a suicidal attack on enemy lines. The king spoke of marching back into Berlin at the head of ‘his army’. But the military informed him that the army was no longer his to command. He then toyed with the various permutations of abdication – perhaps he could abdicate as Kaiser, but stay on as King of Prussia? But with revolution spreading across the cities of Germany, there was no mileage in this quixotic attempt to disentangle the two offices that had become so hopelessly muddled since the proclamation of the Empire. Political events soon outpaced and pre-empted the anguished deliberations at Spa. At two o’clock on the afternoon of 9 November, just as he was about to sign a statement abdicating the imperial, but not the Prussian throne, news reached the headquarters that the new imperial chancellor, Max von Baden, had already announced the Emperor’s abdication of both thrones one hour before, and that government was now in the hands of the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann. After some hours spent absorbing the impact of this momentous news, William boarded the royal train for Germany without having signed an instrument of abdication (he eventually did so in respect of both thrones on 28 November). When it became clear that a return to Germany was out of the question, the royal train changed course for Holland. Upon hearing that parts of the railway to the border had fallen under the control of ‘revolutionaries’, the royal party shifted to a small convoy of automobiles. In the early hours of 10 November 1918, William crossed the Dutch border and left his country for ever.

There is – if one takes the long view – something poignant in this sober Dutch conclusion to the story of the Hohenzollern monarchy. Elector John Sigismund’s conversion to Calvinism in 1613 had been a homage to the robust political and military culture of the Dutch Republic. It was here that the young Frederick William found a safe refuge during the darkest years of the Thirty Years War, and it was from the Calvinist ruling House of Orange that he chose his wife. In later years, the Great Elector sought to remodel his patrimony in the image of the Republic. The dynastic link between the two houses was periodically renewed, notably in 1767 when William V of Orange married Princess Wilhelmina of Prussia, niece of Frederick the Great and sister of Frederick William II. The close family connection served as a pretext for Prussia’s Dutch intervention of 1787, when Frederick William II led a small invasion force into the Netherlands to secure the authority of the House of Orange against the machinations of the French-backed ‘Patriot Party’. In 1830–31, the Prussians supported the Dutch king (without success) in his bid to prevent the secession of Belgium from the United Netherlands. And finally, at the end of the First World War, the last of the Prussian kings sought and received asylum in the Netherlands.

It was a matter of life or death for the Kaiser-king, who was by now the most wanted man in Europe. But Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands steadfastly refused to give way to Allied demands that the Kaiser be extradited for trial as a war criminal (a procedure that might well have ended with the monarch’s execution by hanging). After a brief interim as the house-guests of a Dutch nobleman, William, his wife and what remained of their entourage established themselves at Doorn, in a graceful country residence. ‘Huis Doorn’ was nationalized by the Dutch government after the end of the Second World War and can be visited today. It still conveys the intense, unreal atmosphere of a lilliputian realm where the titles and rituals of the extinct Prussian-German monarchy were punctiliously observed in rooms cluttered with royal-imperial memorabilia, salvaged furniture, family portraits and cards from well-wishers. Here William II spent the remainder of his life (he died on 4 June 1941) sawing wood with his one good arm, reading, writing, talking and drinking tea.

‘As a Prussian, I feel betrayed and sold out!’ declared the Conservative leader Ernst von Heydebrand und der Lasa before the lower house of the Prussian Landtag in December 1917. He was referring to the fact that the newly appointed chancellor and minister-president of Prussia, Count Georg von Hertling, was a Bavarian, while his deputy, Friedrich Payer, was a left-liberal from Württemberg. The imperial state secretaries who now routinely attended meetings of the Prussian ministry of state were a further sign of Prussia’s dwindling autonomy within the German system. ‘What is this Prussia of ours coming to?’126 These were the words of a man who knew that his era was coming to a close. The three-class franchise, the life-support machine of conservative hegemony, was already on notice. Those other props of the conservative system – the House of Lords, the royal court and the system of patronage that went with it – were all swept away in the defeat and revolution of 1918–19. The conservative-agrarian establishment, a network connecting the world of the rural estate with that of the officers’ mess and the ministerial corridor, forfeited its formal anchorage in the structures of the state.

Something was coming to an end. It was not the world, of course, nor was it Prussia; it was a particular Prussian world, or rather the world of Prussian particularism. ‘Old Prussia’ had long been on the defensive. Faced with the threat of change, its champions had always insisted on the uniqueness of its ethos and institutions. But their advocacy for Prussia had always been partial: they spoke for the Protestant Prussia of the rural estates, not for the Catholic and socialist Prussia of the industrial towns. They saw the quintessence of Prussian identity in the collective ethos of a specific class and the deferential solidarities of an idealized East-Elbia.

But the conservatives did not monopolize allegiance to Prussia, though they might sometimes have felt that they did. There had always been an alternative tradition – not particularist but universalist in temperament – attached not to the unique personality of a specific historically ‘grown’ community, but to the state as an impersonal, trans-historical instrument of change. This was the Prussia celebrated in the first great blooming of the ‘Prussian school’ whose histories proliferated after unification. In the grand narratives of the ‘Borussian’ historians, the state held pride of place. It was the compact Protestant answer to the diffuse structures of the Holy Roman Empire. But it was also an antidote to the fog and narrowness of the province and a counterweight to the authority of those who ruled the roost there. Whereas historical narration in Victorian Britain carried the imprint of the Whig teleology, according to which all history was the rise of civil society as the carrier of liberty vis-à-vis the monarchical state, in Prussia the polarities of the argument were reversed. Here it was the state that rose, gradually unfolding its rational order in place of the arbitrary personalized regimes of the old grandees.

This celebration of the state as the carrier of progress was no nineteenth-century invention – it can be traced back, for example, to the treatises and narratives of the Hobbesian political theorist and sometime Brandenburg court historiographer Samuel Pufendorf. But the idea of the state acquired an intense charisma at the time of the Stein-Hardenberg reforms, when it became possible to speak of merging the life of the state with that of the people, of developing the state as an instrument of emancipation, enlightenment and citizenship. And no one, as we have seen, sang the song of the state more sweetly than Hegel, the Swabian philosopher who lived and taught in Berlin from October 1818 until his death in 1831, and once commented that the featureless sands of Brandenburg were a more congenial setting for philosophical speculations than the crowded romantic landscape of his homeland. By the 1820s, Hegel, now something of an academic celebrity, was teaching generations of Berlin students that the reconciliation of the particular and the universal – that Holy Grail of German political culture – had been achieved in the reformed Prussian state of his own time.127

The influence of this exalted conception of the state was felt so widely that it bestowed a distinctive flavour on Prussian political and social thought. In his Proletariat and Society (1848), Lorenz Stein, one of Hegel’s most gifted pupils, observed that Prussia, unlike either France or Britain, possessed a state that was sufficiently independent and authoritative to intervene in the interest-conflicts of civil society, thereby preventing revolution and safeguarding all the members of society from the ‘dictatorship’ of any one interest. It was thus incumbent upon Prussia to fulfil its mission as a ‘monarchy of social reform’. A closely affiliated position was that of the influential conservative ‘state socialist’ Carl Rodbertus, who argued in the 1830s and 1840s that a society based upon the property principle alone would always exclude the propertyless from true membership – only a collectivized authoritarian state could weld the members of society into an inclusive and meaningful whole.128 Rodbertus’s arguments influenced in turn the thinking of Hermann Wagener, editor of the ultra-conservative Neue Preussische Zeitung (known as the Kreuzzeitung because it bore a large black iron cross on its banner). Even that most romantic of conservatives, Ludwig von Gerlach, viewed the state as the only institution capable of bestowing a sense of purpose and identity upon the masses of the population.129

For many protagonists of this tradition, it appeared self-evident that the state must take a more or less limited responsibility for the material welfare of the governed. Among the most influential later nineteenth-century readers of Lorenz Stein was the historian Gustav Schmoller, who coined the term ‘social policy’ (Sozialpolitik) to convey the right and obligation of the state to intervene in support of the most vulnerable members of society; to leave society to regulate its own affairs, Schmoller argued, was to invite chaos.130 Schmoller was closely associated with the economist and ‘state socialist’ Adolph Wagner, who took up a professorial chair at the University of Berlin in 1870. Wagner, a keen student of Rodbertus’s writings, was among the founding members of the Association for Social Policy founded in 1872, an important early forum for debate on the social obligations of the state. Wagner and Schmoller exemplified the outlook of the ‘young historical school’ that flourished in the soil of the Hegelian-Prussian tradition.131 Their belief in the redemptive social mission of the state resonated widely in a political environment troubled by the pains of the recession that set in from 1873 and looking for alternatives to a liberal doctrine of laissezfaire that appeared to have exhausted its credibility. So strong was the intellectual pull of social policy that it attracted a highly diverse constituency, including National Liberals, Centre Party leaders, state socialists and conservative figures close to Bismarck, including the Kreuzzeitung editor Hermann Wagener, who advised Bismarck on social matters in the 1860s and 1870s.132

The scene was thus set long in advance for the pioneering Bismarckian social legislation of the 1880s. The medical insurance law of 15 June 1883 created a network of local insurance providers who dispensed funds from income generated by a combination of worker and employer contributions. The accident insurance law of 1884 made arrangements for the administration of insurance in cases of illness and work-related injury. The last of the three foundational pillars of German social legislation came in 1889, with the age and invalidity insurance law. These provisions were quantitatively small by present-day standards, the payments involved extremely modest, and the scope of the new provisions far from comprehensive – the law of 1883, for example, did not apply to rural workers. At no point did the social legislation of the Empire come close to reversing the trend towards increased economic inequality in Prussian or German society. It is clear, moreover, that Bismarck’s motives were narrowly manipulative and pragmatic. His chief concern was to win the working classes back to the Prussian-German ‘social monarchy’ and thereby cripple the growing Social Democratic movement.

But to personalize the issue is to miss the point. Bismarck’s support for social insurance was, after all, merely one articulation of a broader ‘discourse coalition’ with deep cultural and historical roots. In this congenial ideological setting, the provisions available under the state insurance laws swiftly expanded, to the point where they did begin to have an appreciable impact on the welfare of workers, and perhaps even, as Bismarck had hoped, a mollifying effect on their politics.133 The momentum of reform continued into the early 1890s, when the new administration under William II and Chancellor Caprivi enacted labour laws that brought progress in the areas of industrial safety, working conditions, youth protection and arbitration. The principle they embodied, namely that ‘entrepreneurial forces must respect the state-endorsed interests of all groups’, remained a dominant theme in imperial and Prussian social policy during the following decades.134

By the eve of the First World War, the Prussian state was big. Between the 1880s and 1913, it expanded to encompass over 1 million employees. According to an assessment published in 1913, the Prussian ministry of public works was ‘the largest employer in the world’. The Prussian railways administration alone employed 310,000 workers and the state-controlled mining sector a further 180,000. Across all sectors, the Prussian state offered cutting-edge social services, including unemployment and accident insurance and medical protection schemes. In a speech of 1904, the Prussian minister of public works, Hermann Friedrich von Budde, a former cadet and staff officer, declared before the Prussian Chamber of Deputies that a large part of his work was devoted to the welfare of his public workers. The ultimate purpose of Prussia’s public sector employers, he added, was ‘to solve the social question by means of social provision [Fürsorge]’.135 Here was a Prussia that might survive the débâcle of the Hohenzollern monarchy with its legitimacy intact.

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