Modern history




At the end of October 1918, sailors in Kiel harbour (Schleswig-Holstein) mutinied when they were ordered to put to sea for a futile attack on the British Grand Fleet. As the sailors took control of the naval base, the commander, Prince Heinrich of Prussia, was forced to flee in disguise. A wave of strikes and military rebellions spread across the country, engulfing all the major cities. The revolution quickly acquired its own novel political organizations –‘councils’ elected locally by workers and servicemen across the country to articulate the demands of those broad sectors of the population that had withdrawn their allegiance from the monarchical system and its doomed war effort. This was not, as one contemporary observer noted, an upheaval of the French type, in which the capital city visits revolution upon the provinces; it was more like a Viking invasion spreading inwards ‘like a patch of oil’ from the coast.1 One after another, the local and provincial Prussian administrations capitulated without complaint to the insurgents.

At around two o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday 9 November, Philipp Scheidemann, speaking for the Social Democrats who had just formed a provisional national government, announced to cheering crowds from the balcony of the Reichstag building in Berlin that ‘the old rotten order, the monarchy, has collapsed. Long live the new! Long live the German Republic!’ When the art critic and diarist Harry Kessler entered the Reichstag building at ten o’clock in the evening of 9 November, he found ‘a colourful hubbub’; sailors, armed civilians, women, soldiers thronged up and down the stairways. Groups of soldiers and sailors, some standing, some lying on the thick red carpet, others stretched out asleep on the benches that lined the walls, were scattered round the great hall. It was, Kessler recalled, like a film scene from the Russian Revolution.2 Here, as in all revolutions, the mobilized public demonstrated its prowess by the festive usurpation of formerly privileged space. The Prussian civil servant Herbert du Mesnil, a descendant of Prussian Huguenot colonists, experienced a similar sense of displacement on the evening of 8 November, when a band of insurgents invaded his club in Koblenz. Their leader, a soldier on horseback, clattered around the finely appointed ground-floor rooms of the club, while the diners, most of them officers of Prussian reserve regiments stationed in the town, looked on in astonishment.3

It seemed unlikely at first that the state of Prussia would survive the upheaval. The Hohenzollern Crown was no longer there to provide the diverse lands of the Prussian patrimony with a unifying focal point. In the Rhineland, moreover, there were calls in the Catholic press for separation from Berlin.4 In December 1918, a manifesto demanding territorial autonomy issued by the German-Hanoverian party attracted 600,000 signatures.5 In the eastern provinces, Polish demands for a national restoration erupted on Boxing Day 1918 in an insurrection against the German authorities across the province of Posen and the fighting there soon escalated into a full-scale guerrilla campaign.6 There were good reasons, moreover, to suppose that the new Germany might be better off without Prussia. Even after the territorial annexations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles,7 Prussia remained by far the largest German state. The memory of Prussian dominance within the old Empire suggested that the state’s disproportionate size might prove a burden upon the new German Republic. A report prepared by the Reich Interior Ministry under the direction of the liberal constitutional lawyer Hugo Preuss in December 1918 observed that it made no sense to retain the existing state boundaries within Germany, because these bore no relation to geography or convenience and were ‘merely the coincidental constructions of a purely dynastic policy’. The report concluded that the end of Prussian hegemony over Germany must mean the dismemberment of Prussia.8

Yet the Prussian state survived. The moderate Social Democratic leadership clung to a policy of continuity and stability. This meant, among other things, putting aside their doctrinal commitment to a unitary republican state and preserving the still functioning structures of the Prussian administration. On 12 November 1918, the revolutionary Executive Council of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council of Greater Berlin issued an order to the effect that all administrative offices at communal, provincial and state level were to continue operating. On the following day, the council issued a manifesto under the rubric ‘To the Prussian People!’ announcing that the new authorities intended to transform the ‘thoroughly reactionary Prussia of the past’ into a ‘completely democratic people’s republic’. And on 14 November, a coalition Prussian government was formed, comprising representatives of the SPD and the left-wing socialist Independent SPD (USPD). Civil servants facilitated this transition at the local level by assuring the workers’ and soldiers’ councils that their loyalty was not to the defunct monarchy, but to the Prussian state now under revolutionary custodianship.9

The national revolutionary leadership had no principled objection to the continued existence of the Prussian state.10 There was little support for Preuss’s proposal that Prussia be dismembered to make way for a more strictly centralized national structure. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the SPD and USPD ministers who now exercised joint control over Prussia soon acquired a sense of ownership over the state and became strong opponents of centralization. Even the national Council of People’s Representatives rejected Preuss’s view (with the exception of the leader and later president Friedrich Ebert, a native of Baden).11 Social Democrats also saw Prussian unity as the best antidote to separatist strivings in the Rhineland. They feared that secession from Prussia would ultimately mean secession from Germany itself. In view of French designs in the west and Polish annexationist objectives in the east, they argued, autonomist experiments would only play into the hands of Germany’s enemies. Germany’s security and cohesion as a federal state therefore depended on the integrity of Prussia. This break with the unitarist tradition of the German left removed one of the main threats to the state’s existence.

None of this meant that Prussia could resume the hegemonial position it had occupied within the old Empire. To be sure, the Prussian administration was still the largest in Germany; the Prussian school system remained the model for all the German states, and the Prussian police force was, after the Reichswehr, the most important power instrument in the Weimar Republic. National legislation could not be implemented without the collaboration of the Prussian state, provincial and local bureaucracies.12 But Prussia no longer possessed the means to wield direct influence over the other German states. There was now a national German executive entirely separate from the Prussian government; the personal union between German chancellor and Prussian minister-president, so crucial to the wielding of Prussian influence in the imperial era, became a thing of the past. For the first time, moreover, Germany possessed a genuinely national army (subject to the limitations imposed by the Versailles Treaty) with a ministerial executive independent of Prussian control. The fiscal dualism of the old Empire, in which the member states held exclusive control of direct taxation and financed the Reich through a system of matricular contributions, was also done away with. What emerged in its place was a centralized administration in which taxing authority was concentrated in the Reich government and revenues were directed to the states in accordance with their needs. Prussia, along with all the other German states, thus forfeited its fiscal autonomy.13

During the winter of 1918, the revolutionary movement remained unstable and internally divided. There were essentially three main political camps on the left: the largest was the Majority SPD, comprising the bulk of the wartime Social Democratic Party and its mass membership. To their immediate left was the Independent SPD (USPD), the radical leftist wing of the old SPD that had split with the mother party in 1917 in protest over the moderate reformism of its leadership. On the extreme left were the Spartakists who founded the Communist Party in December 1918. Their objective was all-out class war and the creation of a German Soviet system on the Bolshevik model. In the early weeks of the revolution, the SPD and USPD worked closely together to stabilize the new order. Both the national and the Prussian governments were run by SPD/USPD coalitions. But cooperation proved difficult in practice, partly because the USPD was a highly unstable formation whose political identity was still in flux. Within weeks of the revolution, the SPD/USPD partnership was tested to breaking point by disputes over the future status of the Prussian-German army.

The terms of the relationship between the provisional socialist leadership and the military command had been set on the very first day of the new republic. On the evening of 9 November, Friedrich Ebert, chairman of the Council of People’s Representatives made a telephone call to First Quartermaster-General Wilhelm Groener (Ludendorff had been sacked by the Kaiser on 26 October), in which the two men agreed to cooperate in restoring order in Germany. Groener undertook to effect a smooth and swift demobilization. In return, he demanded Ebert’s assurance that the government would secure supply sources, assist the army in maintaining discipline, prevent disruption of the railway network, and generally respect the autonomy of the military command. Groener also made it clear that the army’s chief objective was to prevent a Bolshevik revolution in Germany and that he expected Ebert to support him in this.

The Ebert–Groener pact was an ambivalent achievement. It secured for the socialist republican authority the means to enforce order and protect itself against further upheavals. This was a major step forward for an executive structure that had no meaningful armed force of its own and no constitutional foundation for its authority, save the right of usurpation bestowed by the revolution itself. Seen in this light, the Ebert–Groener pact was shrewd, pragmatic and in any case necessary, since there was no plausible alternative. Yet there was also something ominous in the army’s setting of political conditions even for the fulfilment of urgent tasks within its own remit, such as demobilization. What mattered here was not the substance of Groener’s demands, which were reasonable enough, but the army’s formal arrogation of the right to treat with the civilian authority on an equal footing.14

There was deep distrust between the army and the leftist elements in the revolutionary movement, despite Ebert’s well-intentioned efforts to build bridges between the military command and the revolutionary soldiers’ councils. On 8 December, when General Lequis arrived at the outskirts of Berlin with ten divisions of troops, the executive committee (the national executive of the soldiers’ and sailors’ councils) and the Independent Socialist ministers within the provisional government refused to allow the general to enter the capital. Ebert managed with some difficulty to persuade them to open the city to Lequis, the majority of whose men were Berliners desperate to return to their homes.15 There was further tension on 16 December, when the first national congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils passed a resolution demanding the revolutionization of the military: Hindenburg was to be dismissed as chief of staff, the old Prussian cadet school system closed down and all marks of rank abolished. Officers were henceforth to be elected by their troops and a people’s militia (Volkswehr) established alongside the regular army. Hindenburg rejected these proposals outright and ordered Groener to inform Ebert that the agreement between them would be null and void if there were any attempt to translate them into practice. When Ebert told a joint meeting of the cabinet and the Executive Council16 that the proposals of 16 December would not be implemented, there was consternation among the Independents, who at once began to mobilize their radical following across Berlin.

The political climate was now exceptionally volatile. Relations between the SPD and the Independents were very tense. Berlin was thronging with armed workers and units of radicalized soldiers – the most boisterous of these was the People’s Naval Division, whose headquarters were the Royal Stables, an imposing neo-baroque building on the eastern side of Palace Square. There was talk on the extreme left of an armed uprising. At a general meeting of the Independent Social Democrats of Greater Berlin, the Spartakist leader and ideologue Rosa Luxemburg attacked the compromise policy of the Independents and demanded that they withdraw their allegiance from the Ebert government. There was no point, she declared, in debating with ‘Junkers and bourgeois’ over whether one should introduce socialism:

Socialism does not mean getting together in a parliament and passing laws, socialism means for us overthrowing the ruling classes with all the brutality [loud laughter] that the proletariat is capable of deploying in its struggle.17

The flashpoint for an open conflict came on 23 December. On this day, after reports of looting and vandalism by ‘red sailors’, the provisional government ordered the People’s Naval Division to leave the Royal Stables and quit the capital. Instead of complying, the sailors seized and mistreated the Berlin city commandant Otto Wels, surrounded the chancellery building (seat of the SPD/USPD government), occupied the central telephone exchange, and cut off the lines connecting the chancellery with the outside world. Using a secret chancellery hotline to the Military Supreme Command in Kassel, Ebert requested military assistance. General Lequis was called in from Potsdam to restore order. His performance was not confidence-inspiring: on the morning of Christmas Day 1918, his troops drove the ‘red sailors’ away from the chancellery and bombarded the Royal Stables for two hours. It was enough to secure a surrender by the rebellious sailors, but word had got around and an angry (and partly armed) crowd of Spartakists, Independents and leftist fellow travellers soon gathered around the troops, who promptly withdrew from the scene.

The débâcle of Christmas Day 1918 had a polarizing effect on the political climate. It encouraged the extreme left to believe that a more resolute strike would suffice to break the authority of the Ebert – Scheidemann regime. It also ruined the prospects for further collaboration between the SPD and the Independents, who left the provisional national government on 29 December. Their Prussian colleagues withdrew from the Prussian coalition cabinet on 3 January. The majority SPD now ruled alone in the state.18 Groener responded to the growing tension by calling for the formation of volunteer units, or Freikorps, a term that recalled the stirring myths of 1813. One of these had already formed in Westphalia under General Ludwig Maercker, and others soon followed: the Freikorps Reinhard, under the former Guards officer Colonel Wilhelm Reinhard, was created on Boxing Day; another Freikorps assembled at Potsdam under Major Stephani, composed of demobilized officers and men from the I Regiment of Foot Guards and the Imperial Potsdam Regiment. Freikorps recruits were driven by an unsteady mix of ultra-nationalism, a desire to make good the humiliation at the German defeat, hatred of the left and visceral fear of a Bolshevik uprising. All these units were placed under the general command of the Silesian career officer General Walther Freiherr von Lüttwitz.

To ensure harmonious relations between the military and the civilian authority, Ebert appointed the SPD man Gustav Noske to head the ministry of military affairs. Noske, the son of a weaver and an industrial worker from the city of Brandenburg, had worked as an apprentice basket weaver before joining the SPD and achieving distinction within the party for his services to socialist journalism. In 1906, he had joined the SPD parliamentary fraction in the Reichstag, where he was associated with the right-wing SPD leadership group around Ebert. Noske had long been known for his friendly attitude to the military; he joined the provisional government on 29 December, after the departure of the USPD coalition partners. When asked to oversee the provisional government’s campaign against the leftist revolutionaries in Berlin, Noske is said to have replied: ‘Fine. Someone has to be the bloodhound, and I am not afraid of taking the responsibility.’19

The next uprising was not long in coming. On 4 January, the Berlin provisional government ordered the dismissal of Emil Eichhorn, the commissary police chief of Berlin, a left-wing Independent who had refused to support the government during the ‘Christmas Battles’. Eichhorn refused to resign, choosing instead to distribute arms from the police arsenal to left-radical troops and to barricade himself in the police presidency. Without authorization from the USPD leadership, the police chief ordered a general insurrection, a call that was answered with gusto by the extreme left. On 5 and 6 January, the Communists mounted their first concerted attempt to seize power in Berlin, pillaging arsenals, arming bands of radical workers and occupying key buildings and positions in the city. Once again, the SPD provisional government called in troops to bring an end to the unrest.

For some days the city was transformed into a lurid and dangerous jungle, a dadaist nightmare. There was shooting at every corner and it was seldom clear who was shooting at whom. Neighbouring streets were occupied by opposing forces, there were desperate struggles on roofs and in cellars, machine-guns positioned anywhere suddenly struck up fire and then fell silent, squares and streets that had just now been quiet were suddenly filled with running, fleeing pedestrians, groaning wounded and the bodies of the dead.20

On 7 January, Harry Kessel witnessed a battle scene on the Hafenplatz in Berlin: government troops were trying to take control of the railway administration headquarters, which had been occupied by leftists. The rattling of small arms and machine-gun fire was deafening. In the heat of the battle an elevated train filled with urban commuters trundled across the viaduct that spanned the square, seemingly oblivious to the firefight raging below. ‘The screaming is continuous,’ Kessel noted. ‘The whole of Berlin is a bubbling witches’ cauldron where forces and ideas are stirred up together.’21On 15 January, after an extensive manhunt, the Communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were found, arrested and subsequently beaten to death by members of a cavalry guards division stationed at the Hotel Eden in central Berlin.

The Communists now seethed with an implacable hatred of the Social Democrats. In March 1919, they called a general strike and fighting once again broke out in Berlin. Some 15,000 armed Communists and fellow travellers seized control of police stations and rail terminals. Determined to break the power of the extreme left at all costs, Gustav Noske brought in 40,000 government and Freikorps troops, who used machine guns, field artillery, mortars, flame-throwers and even aerial strafing and bombardment to put down the rebellion. When the fighting in Berlin came to an end on 16 March, 1,200 people were dead. The violent suppression of the January and March uprisings and the murder of its intellectual leaders dealt the extreme left a blow that it was never prepared to forgive. In their eyes, the Social Democrats had betrayed the German worker to sign a ‘devil’s pact’ with Prussian militarism.22

No one gave clearer visual expression to this view of events than the Berlin artist George Grosz. Grosz, an early participant in the Berlin Dadaist movement, had been exempted from military service on psychological grounds and had spent the later years of the war in Berlin. In December 1918 he was one of the first wave of Communist Party members, receiving his card personally from the hands of Rosa Luxemburg. He spent the days of the March uprising hiding in the Berlin apartment of his future mother-in-law. In a remarkable polemical drawing published at the beginning of April 1919, Grosz depicted a street littered with blood-stained bodies, one disembowelled. Protruding diagonally into the lower right-hand of the picture frame is a swollen corpse, its trousers pulled down to reveal mutilated genitalia. Standing in the centre foreground, with the heel of his boot pressing on the belly of one of the dead, is the travesty of a Prussian officer, his monocle screwed tightly into his face, his teeth bared in a cramped grimace, his posture ramrod-straight. In his right hand he carries a blood-smeared sword, in his left a raised champagne flute. The caption reads: ‘Cheers Noske! The proletariat is disarmed!’23

Even for those who did not share Grosz’s Spartakist commitment, Prost Noske! captured something disturbing about the events of early 1919. The extreme violence of the repressions was in itself disquieting. The Freikorps units brought a new brand of politically motivated terrorist ultra-violence to their counter-insurgency operations in the city, hunting out hidden and fleeing leftists and subjecting them to brutal mistreatment and summary executions. The Berlin press reported executions of thirty prisoners at a time by makeshift Freikorps tribunals, and Harry Kessler observed ruefully that a hitherto unknown spirit of ‘blood vengeance’ had entered the city of Berlin. Here – though not only here24 – could be seen the brutalizing effects of the war and the ensuing defeat, the anti-civilian ethos of the military, and the profoundly unsettling ideological impact of Russia’s October Revolution of 1917.

Another ominous feature of the conflicts of 1919 was the deepening dependence of the new political leadership on a military establishment whose enthusiasm for the emerging German Republic was questionable, to say the least. Exactly how questionable became clear in January 1920, when a number of senior officers refused outright to implement the military stipulations of the Versailles Treaty. Heading the rebellion was none other than General Walther Freiherr von Lüttwitz, who had commanded the troops engaged in the repressions of January and March in Berlin. When Army Minister Noske ordered him to disband the elite Marine Brigade under Captain Hermann Ehrhardt, Lüttwitz refused outright, called for new elections and demanded that he be placed in command of the entire German army. Here was yet another example of that spirit of egotistical insubordination that had been gaining ground within the old-Prussian military leadership since Hindenburg and Ludendorff had held the government to ransom during the First World War.


54. ‘Cheers Noske! The proletariat is disarmed!’ Drawing for the leftist satirical journal Die Pleite by George Grosz, April 1919.

On 10 March 1920, Lüttwitz was finally dismissed from active service; two days later he launched a putsch against the government in collaboration with the conservative ultra-nationalist activist Wolfgang Kapp, a political intriguer who had been involved in the fall of Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg in 1917. The aim was to unseat the republican government and establish an autocratic military regime. On 13 March, Lüttwitz and the Ehrhardt Brigade took control of the capital, forcing the government to flee, first to Dresden and then to Stuttgart. Kapp appointed himself Reich chancellor and minister-president of Prussia and Lüttwitz minister of the army and supreme commander of the armed forces. It looked for a moment as if the history of the young republic was already at an end. In the event, the Kapp–Lüttwitz putsch collapsed after only four days – it had been poorly planned and the would-be dictators had no means of dealing with an SPD-sponsored general strike that paralysed German industry and parts of the civil service. Kapp announced his ‘resignation’ on 17 March and quickly slipped off to Sweden; Lüttwitz resigned on the same evening and later resurfaced in Austria.

The problem of the army and its relationship with the republican authority did not disappear after the failure of the Kapp–Lüttwitz putsch. The chief of the army command from March 1920 was Hans von Seeckt, a Prussian career staff officer from Schleswig-Holstein, who initially refused to oppose Kapp and Lüttwitz, but ostentatiously sided with the government once they had failed. Under his shrewd leadership, the military command focused on building German military strength within the narrow parameters imposed by Versailles and abstained from conspicuous political interventions. Yet the army remained in many respects a foreign body within the fabric of the republic. Its loyalty was not to the existing political authority, but ‘to that permanent and imperishable entity’, the German Reich.25 In an essay published in 1928, Seeckt set out his views on the status of the military within a republican state. He acknowledged that the ‘supreme leadership of the state’ must control the army, but also insisted that ‘the army has the right to demand that its share in the life and the being of the state be given full consideration’–whatever that meant!

Seeckt’s expansive conception of the army’s status found expression in his claim that ‘in domestic and foreign policy the military interests represented in the army must be given full consideration’ and that the ‘particular way of life’ of the military must be respected. Even more telling was his observation that the army was subordinate only ‘to the state as a whole’ and not ‘to separate parts of the state organization’. The question of who or what exactly embodied the totality of the state remained unresolved, though it is tempting to read these words as encoded articulations of a crypto-monarchism in which allegiance was ultimately focused not on the state, but on the empty throne of the departed Emperor-king. This was, in other words, an army whose legitimacy derived from something outside the existing political order and whose commitment to upholding that order remained conditional.26 Here was a potentially troublesome legacy of the Prussian constitutional tradition, in which the army had sworn its fealty to the monarch and led an existence apart from the structures of civil authority.


It was as if reality had been turned inside out. The Prussian state had passed through the looking glass of defeat and revolution to emerge with the polarities of its political system in reverse. This was a mirror-world in which Social Democrat ministers despatched troops to put down strikes by leftist workers. A new political elite emerged; former apprentice locksmiths, office clerks and basket-weavers sat behind Prussian ministerial desks. In the new Prussia, according to the Prussian constitution of 30 November 1920, sovereignty rested with ‘the entirety of the people’. The Prussian parliament was no longer convened and dissolved by a higher authority, but summoned itself under rules set out in the constitution. By contrast with the Weimar (national) constitution, which concentrated formidable powers in the person of the Reich president, the Prussian system made do without a president. It was in this sense a more thoroughly democratic and less authoritarian system than the Weimar Republic itself. Throughout the years 1920–32(with a few very brief interruptions), an SPD-led republican coalition consisting of Social Democrats, Centre Party deputies, left-liberals (DDP) and – later – right-liberals (DVP) governed with a majority in the Prussian Landtag. Prussia became the ‘rock of democracy’ in Germany and the chief bastion of political stability within the Weimar Republic. Whereas Weimar politics at the national level were marked by extremism, conflict and the rapid alternation of governments, the Prussian grand coalition held firm and steered a steady course of moderate reform. Whereas the German national parliaments of the Weimar era were periodically cut short by political crises and dissolutions, every one of their Prussian counterparts (except the last) was allowed to live out its full natural lifespan.

Presiding over this surprisingly stable political system was Prussia’s ‘red Tsar’, Minister-President Otto Braun. The son of a railway clerk in Königsberg, Braun had been trained in his youth as a lithographer, joined the SPD at the age of sixteen in 1888 and soon became well known as a leader of the socialist movement among rural East Prussian labourers. He became a member of the party’s executive council in 1911 and joined the small contingent of SPD deputies in the lower house of the old Prussian Landtag two years later. His sobriety, pragmatism and moderation helped to create a framework for harmonious government in Germany’s largest federal territory. Like many other Social Democrats of his generation, Braun professed a deep attachment to Prussia and a respect for the intrinsic virtue and authority of the Prussian state – an attitude shared to some extent by all the coalition partners. Even the Centre Party made its peace with the state that had once so energetically persecuted Catholics; the high point of their rapprochement was the concordat agreed between the Prussian state and the Vatican on 14 June 1929.27 In 1932, Braun could look back with a certain satisfaction on what had been achieved since the end of the First World War. ‘In twelve years,’ he declared in an article for the SPD newspaper Volksbanner in 1932, ‘Prussia, once the state of the crassest class domination and political deprivation of the working classes, the state of the centuries-old feudal Junker caste hegemony, has been transformed into a republican people’s state.’28

But how deep was the transformation? How profoundly did the new political elite penetrate the fabric of the old Prussian state? The answer depends upon where one looks. If we focus on the judiciary, the achievement of the new power-holders looks unimpressive. There were certainly piecemeal improvements in discrete areas – prison reform, industrial arbitration and administrative rationalization – but little was done to consolidate a pro-republican ethos among the upper ranks of the judicial bureaucracy and particularly among the judges, who tended to remain sceptical of the legitimacy of the new order. Many judges mourned the loss of king and crown – in a famous outburst of 1919, the head of the League of German Judges declared that ‘all majesty lies prostrate, including the majesty of the law.’ It was common knowledge that many judges were biased against left-wing political offenders and prone to look more leniently on the crimes of right-wing extremists.29 The key impediment to radical action by the state in this area was a deeply embedded respect – especially among the liberal and Centre Party coalition partners – for the functional and personal independence of the judge. The autonomy of the judge – his freedom from political reprisals and manipulation – was seen as crucial to the integrity of the judicial process. Once this principle was enshrined in the Prussian constitution of 1920, a thorough-going purge of anti-republican elements in the judiciary became impossible. Changes to the appointments procedures for new judges promised future improvement, as did the setting of a compulsory retirement age, but the system inaugurated in 1920 did not last long enough to allow these adjustments to take effect. A senator of the Supreme Court in Berlin estimated in 1932 that perhaps 5 per cent of the judges sitting on the Prussian bench could be described as supporters of the republic.

The SPD-led government also inherited a civil service that had been socialized, schooled, recruited and trained in the imperial era and whose allegiance to the republic was correspondingly weak. Just how weak was revealed in March 1920, when many provincial and district governors continued working in their offices during the Kapp–Lüttwitz putsch and thus implicitly accepted the authority of the would-be usurpers. The situation was most acute in the province of East Prussia, where the entire senior bureaucracy recognized the Kapp–Lüttwitz ‘government’.30

The first office-holder to tackle this problem with the required energy was the new Social Democrat Interior Minister Carl Severing, a former locksmith from Bielefeld, who had risen through the ranks of the SPD as a journalist-editor and sometime Reichstag deputy. Under the ‘Severing system’, grossly compromised individuals were dismissed and representatives of the governing parties vetted all new appointees to ‘political’ (i.e. senior) civil service posts. It was not long before this practice had a marked effect on the political complexion of the senior echelons. By 1929, 291 of the 540 political civil servants in Prussia were members of the solidly republican coalition parties SPD, Centre and DDP. Nine of the eleven provincial governors and 21 of the 32 district governors belonged to the coalition parties. The social composition of the political elite was transformed in the process: whereas eleven out of twelve provincial governors had been noblemen in 1918, only two of the men who served in this post over the years 1920–32 were of noble descent. That this transition could be effected without disrupting the operations of the state was a remarkable achievement.

Policing was another area of crucial importance. The Prussian police force was far and away the largest in the country. Here too, there were nagging doubts about political loyalty, especially after the Kapp–Lüttwitz putsch, when the Prussian police administration failed unequivocally to declare its allegiance to the government. On 30 March 1920, only two weeks after the collapse of the putsch, Otto Braun announced that he intended to institute a ‘root and branch transformation’ of the Prussian security organs.31 Personnel reform in this area was not particularly problematic, since control over appointments lay entirely in the hands of the interior ministry, which, with one brief break, remained under SPD control until 1932. Responsibility for overseeing personnel policy fell to the decidedly republican head of the police department (from 1923) Wilhelm Abegg, who saw to it that adherents of the republican parties were appointed to all key posts. By the late 1920s, the upper echelons of the police force had been comprehensively republicanized – of thirty Prussian police presidents on 1 January 1928, fifteen were Social Democrats, five belonged to the Centre, four were German Democrats (DDP) and three were members of the German People’s Party; the remaining three declared no political affiliation. It was official policy throughout the police service to base recruitment not only upon mental and physical aptitude, but also upon the candidate’s having a record of ‘past behaviour guaranteeing that they would work in a positive sense for the state’.32

Yet doubts remained about the political reliability of the police force. The great majority of officers and men were former military men who brought military manners and attitudes with them into the service. Among senior police cadres, there was still a strong old-Prussian reserve officer element with informal links to various right-wing organizations. The mood in most police units was anti-Communist and conservative, rather than specifically republican. They saw the enemies of the state on the left – including the left wing of the SPD, the party of government! – rather than among the extremists on the right, whom they viewed with indulgence if not sympathy. A police officer who openly proclaimed his pro-republican allegiance was likely to remain an outsider. The Centre Party functionary Marcus Heimannsberg was a man of modest social origin who rose swiftly through the ranks under the protection of SPD Interior Minister Carl Severing. But he was widely resented among his fellow senior officers as a political appointment and remained socially isolated. Others who were less protected suffered the discrimination of their colleagues and risked being passed over for promotion. In many locations, policemen of known republican sentiment were ostracized from the gregarious – and professionally important – after-hours sociability of the regulars’ table at the local pub.33

Ultimately, the record of the Prussian state government has to be judged in the light of what was realistically possible in the circumstances. A purge of the old judiciary would have run against the ideological grain of the Centre and liberal parties, as well as the right wing of the SPD, all of whom held dear the principle of the Rechtsstaat in which the judge enjoys immunity from political interference. It is certainly true that some right-wing Prussian judges handed down biased verdicts in political cases, but the importance of these verdicts was diminished by the frequency of amnesties for political offenders and has probably been exaggerated in the literature on ‘political justice’ in the Weimar Republic.34 It is clear that in the longer term, the new retirement age and the new state guidelines for judicial appointments would have facilitated the formation of a comprehensively republican judiciary. As far as the civil service is concerned, an all-out purge of government personnel was out of the question, given the shortage of qualified republican substitutes and the moderate outlook of the Prussian coalition. In the case of the police, installing a pro-republican leadership cadre while retaining the services of the bulk of officers and men from the old regime looked like the best way to ensure the stability and effectiveness of the service, especially in the unstable early years. The coalition governments thus opted to pursue a policy of gradual republicanization. What they could not know was that the German Republic would be extinguished before there was time for this programme to fulfil its potential.

The real threat to Prussia’s existence did not in any case stem from the state civil service, but from powerful interests outside the state that remained dedicated to the downfall of the republic. The threat of a Spartakist uprising was neutralized in 1919–20, but the extreme left continued to attract significant electoral support – indeed the Communists were the only party whose tally of votes increased with every single Prussian election, from 7.4 per cent in 1921 to 13.2 per cent in 1933. Less ideologically homogeneous but equally radical and determined and far more numerous were the forces mustered on the right. It is one of the salient features of Weimar politics in Prussia (as in Germany more generally) that the ‘conservative interest’, for lack of a better term, never accommodated itself to the political culture of the new republic. The post-war years saw the emergence of a large, fragmented and radicalized right-wing opposition that refused to accept the legitimacy of the new order.

The most important organizational focal point for right-wing politics in Weimar Prussia before 1930 was the German Nationalist Party, or DNVP. Founded on 29 November 1918, the DNVP was in formal terms a successor organization to the Prussian conservative parties of the pre-war era; the first DNVP programme was published on 24 November 1918 in the Kreuzzeitung, the conservative organ founded in Berlin during the 1848 revolutions. Taken as a whole, however, the DNVP represented a new force in Prussian politics. East-Elbian agrarians were no longer so dominant within its social constituency, since the party also catered to a large contingent of urban white-collar employees, ranging from clerks, secretaries and office assistants to middle and upper management. Of the forty-nine DNVP deputies elected to the Prussian Constituent Assembly on 26 January 1919, only fourteen had served in the Prussian Landtag before 1918. The party was a rainbow coalition of interests ranging from pragmatic moderate conservatives (a minority), to enthusiasts of a monarchist restoration, ultra-nationalists, ‘conservative revolutionaries’ and exponents of a racist völkisch radicalism. In this sense the party occupied an uncomfortable position somewhere between the ‘old’ Prussian conservatism and the extremist organizations of the German ‘new right’.35

The politico-cultural matrix of the old East-Elbian provincial conservatism no longer existed. It had been in flux since the 1890s; after 1918, it dissolved entirely. First there was the damage inflicted on conservative networks by the revolution of 1918–19. Virtually the entire apparatus of privilege that had sustained the agrarian political lobby was swept away. The abolition of the three-class franchise destroyed at one stroke the electoral basis for conservative political hegemony, while the abdication of the crown and the proclamation of a republic decapitated the old system of privilege and patronage that had secured for the agrarian nobility an unparalleled leverage on public office. Even at regional and local level, the recruitment policies of the new SPD-led government soon began to change the scene, as provincial governors and district commissioners of the old school made way for republican successors.

All this came at a time of unprecedented economic disruption. The removal of restrictions on strikes and collective bargaining by farm labourers and the repeal of the old Servants’ Law raised the pressure on wages across the farming sector. Tax reforms dismantled the fiscal exemptions that had always been a structural feature of Prussian agriculture. The new republic was also far less receptive to the protectionist arguments of the farmers than its imperial predecessors; grain tariffs were lowered to facilitate industrial exports and there was a dramatic rise in food imports, even after the reintroduction of a reduced tariff in 1925. Under the impact of rising taxes and interest rates, galloping debt, wage pressures and the misallocation of capital during the inflation, many food producers – especially among the larger estates – went into bankruptcy.36 These pressures did not let up after the currency stabilization of 1924. On the contrary, the later years of the Weimar Republic were a period of unpredictable price fluctuations, depression and crisis for the agricultural sector.37

There was also a religious dimension to the dissolution of what remained of the old conservative milieu. For the Protestants of the Church of the Prussian Union who comprised the majority of the population in the East-Elbian provinces, the loss of the king was a more than merely political event. The Unionist Church had always been a specifically royal institution: the King of Prussia was ex officio supreme bishop of the Union, with extensive patronage powers and a prominent place in the liturgical life of the congregation. William II in particular had taken his ecclesiastical-executive role very seriously indeed.38 The termination of the monarchy as an institution thus brought a measure of institutional disorientation to Prussia’s Protestants, heightened by the loss (to Prussia and Germany) of substantial Protestant areas in West Prussia and the former province of Posen, and by the openly secular and anti-Christian demeanour of some prominent republican political figures.39 That the Catholic Centre Party had managed to secure an influential place at the heart of the new system was a further irritant.

Many Prussian Protestants responded to these developments by turning their backs on the republic and voting in great numbers for the DNVP, which, despite early overtures to the Catholic electorate, remained an overwhelmingly Protestant party. ‘Our special difficulty,’ one senior clergyman observed in September 1930, ‘lies in the fact that the most loyal members of our church are opposed to the existing form of government.’40 There were signs of an accelerating fragmentation and radicalization of religious rhetoric and belief. It became fashionable after 1918 to rationalize the legitimacy of the evangelical church through an appeal to its national and ethnic-German vocation. The Union for German Church, founded in 1921 by Joachim Kurd Niedlich, a Protestant teacher at the French Gymnasium in Berlin, was one of many völkisch religious groups founded in the early years of the Weimar Republic. Niedlich became well known as the exponent of a racist Christian creed rooted in the notion that Jesus had been a heroic fighter and Godseeker of Nordic lineage. In 1925, the Union merged with the newly founded German Christians’ Union. Their joint programme included calls for a German national church, a ‘German Bible’ reflecting the German moral character, and the promotion of racial hygiene in Germany.41

The influence of ultra-nationalist and ethnocentric thinking was not confined to the margins of church life. After 1918, the care for the German Protestant communities marooned in territories transferred to the new Polish Republic took on symbolic importance. Protestants, especially in the truncated state of Prussia, equated the predicament of their church with the condition of the German people as a whole. ‘Volk and Fatherland’ was the official theme of the second German Protestant Church Congress held in Königsberg in 1927.

Closely linked with this shift in emphasis was an increasingly strident strain of anti-Semitism. A publication of 1927 by the Union for German Church declared that Christ, as the divine transfiguration of Siegfried, would eventually ‘break the neck of the Jewish-satanic snake with his iron fist’.42During the 1920s, there was agitation by a range of Christian groups to end official collections for the mission to the Jews, and in March 1930, the General Synod of the Old Prussian Union voted to cease defining the mission as an official beneficiary of church funding.43 Dismayed by this decision, the president of the Berlin mission composed a circular letter to the consistories and provincial church councils of the Prussian state church warning against the insidious influence of anti-Semitism and observing that the number of clergymen within the Prussian Union who had ‘succumbed’ to anti-Semitism was ‘astonishingly and terrifyingly high’.44 High-ranking academics at the Prussian theological faculties were among those who saw in the Jewish minority a menace to German Volkstum, and a survey of Protestant Sunday papers in the years from 1918 to 1933 reveals the strength of ultra-nationalist and anti-Jewish sentiment in Protestant circles.45 It was in part as a consequence of these processes of reorientation and radicalization that the National Socialists found it so easy to establish themselves within the East-Elbian Protestant milieu.46

And what of the old Prussian elite, the Junkers, who had once ruled the roost in East-Elbia? This was the social group most exposed to the transformations unleashed by defeat and revolution. For the older generation of the Prussian military nobility, defeat and revolution brought a traumatic sense of loss. On 21 December 1918, General von Tschirschky, commander of the III Guards Regiment of Uhlans and a former wing-adjutant to the Emperor, ordered his regiment to form up for a final parade in Potsdam. ‘There he stood, the wine-loving old warrior, with his smart Emperor Wilhelm moustaches and a stentorian voice that thundered across the whole of Bornstedt Field – and the tears poured down over his rough cheeks.’47 Ceremonies of this type – and there were many such – were self-consciously historical rituals of renunciation and withdrawal, acknowledgements that the old world was passing. Siegfried Count Eulenburg, the last commander of the I Footguards, gave expression to this sense of closure in a ‘leave-taking ceremony’ orchestrated in the winter of 1918 in the ‘deathly stillness’ of the Garrison Church in Potsdam. There was a shared awareness, one participant recalled, that ‘the old order had collapsed and no longer had a future’.48

But these elegant performances did not typify the general mood within the Prussian noble families. Although some noblemen (especially of the older generation) accepted the verdict of events in a spirit of fatalism and withdrawal, others (especially of the younger generation) displayed a determination to remain the masters of the moment and to reconquer their ancestral leadership positions. In many areas of East Elbia, the nobility, operating through the agencies of the Agrarian League, was astonishingly successful in infiltrating local revolutionary organizations and orienting the politics of rural organizations away from leftist redistributive goals towards the agrarian bloc politics of the old regime. Noblemen dominated the Homeland League East Prussia, for example, an agrarian group that expounded ultra-nationalist and anti-democratic political objectives.49 Many younger noblemen – especially from the lesser families – played a prominent role in the formation of the Freikorps that crushed the extreme left during the early months of the Republic. These men experienced the ultra-violence of the Freikorps as liberation, an intoxicating release from the sense of loss and precipitous decline that attended the events of 1918–19. The memoirs of noble Freikorps activists published during the early years of the republic reveal the total abandonment of traditional chivalric codes and the adoption of a brutal, uninhibited, anti-republican, hypermasculine warrior persona ready to deal out murderous and indiscriminate violence against an ideologically defined enemy.50

The extinction of the Prussian monarchy was an existential shock for the East-Elbian nobility – more perhaps than for any other social group. ‘I feel as if I can no longer live without our Kaiser and king,’ wrote the magnate Dietlof Count Arnim-Boitzenburg, the last president of the Prussian upper house, in January 1919.51 But the attitude of most nobles to the exiled king – and his family – remained ambivalent. For many representatives of the Prussian nobility, the ignominious circumstances of the monarch’s departure, and particularly his failure to preserve the prestige of his crown by sacrificing himself in battle, impeded any genuine identification with the last occupant of the Prussian throne. Monarchism thus never developed into an ideological formation capable of providing the conservative nobility as a whole with a coherent and stable political standpoint. Noblemen, especially of the younger generation, drifted away from the personal, flesh-and-blood monarchism of their fathers and forebears towards the diffuse idea of a ‘leader of the people’, whose charisma and natural authority would fill the vacuum created by the departure of the king.52 We find a characteristic articulation of this longing in the diary jottings of Count Andreas von Bernstorff-Wedendorf, descendant of a line of distinguished servants of the Prussian throne: ‘Only a dictator can help us now, one who will sweep an iron broom through this whole international parasitic scum. If only we had, like the Italians, a Mussolini!’53 In short, within the Prussian nobility, as across the East-Elbian conservative milieu, the Weimar years witnessed a drastic radicalization of political expectations.

By the late 1920s, the experience of repeated crises had fragmented the agrarian political landscape, generating a profusion of special interest groups and movements of increasingly radical protest. The chief beneficiaries of this volatility were the Nazis, whose 1930 party programme promised to place the entire rural sector on a privileged footing through a regime of tariffs and price controls. Farmers who were disillusioned by the DNVP’s failure to secure benefits for the rural sector now deserted the party in search of a more radical alternative – in all, one-third of the voters who had supported the DNVP in the national elections of 1928 switched to the Nazis in the elections of 1930.54 The efforts of the Nationalist leadership to win back the renegades by hardening the party’s anti-republican course were in vain. Among those who were drawn to the National Socialist movement were numerous members of the East-Elbian nobility. A particularly striking case is that of the Wedel family, an old Pomeranian military lineage whose forebears had fought with distinction in every Prussian war since the foundation of the kingdom. No fewer than seventy-seven Wedels joined the NSDAP – the largest contingent from any German noble family.55

Nowhere was popular electoral support for the Nazis greater than in the Masurian areas of southern East Prussia, where the summer election campaign of 1932 brought forth the bizarre spectacle of National Socialist political rallies in Polish. In July 1932, 70.6 per cent of voters in the Masurian district of Lyck supported the Nazis, a higher figure than anywhere else in the Reich. The percentages for nearby Neidenburg and Johannisburg were only fractionally lower. In the March elections of 1933, Masuria once again led the Reich in its support for the Nazis, with 81 per cent in Neidenburg, 80.38 per cent in Lyck and 76.6 per cent in Ortelsburg, where Frederick William III had once paused with Queen Luise during their flight from the French.56


The German national elections of September 1930 brought the first major electoral breakthrough for the National Socialists. In the previous elections of May 1928, they had been a splinter party with just 2.6 per cent of the votes (under the current constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany, they would not have qualified for entry into parliament at all) and had the Reichstag of 1928 been allowed to live out its natural lifetime, this would have remained unchanged until 1932. But in September 1930, thanks to a Reichstag dissolution conducted on the authority of the Reich President, Paul von Hindenburg, the Nazis were returned with 18.3 per cent. The number of Nazi voters rose from 810,000 to 6.4 million, the number of their deputies from twelve to 107. This was the greatest gain ever to be made by any party in German history from one Reichstag election to the next. It completely transformed the landscape of German politics.

The Prussian administration was shielded from this upheaval by the fact that there was no election in the state that year. The Prussian Landtag of 1928 remained in session and was allowed, like all its predecessors, to live out its four-year term. Within the state legislature, the Nazis remained a small splinter party. But there were many auguries of danger. Most importantly, it now became impossible for the Prussian state administration and the German national government to collaborate in addressing the threat posed by the extreme right. Under the SPD-led national government of Hermann Müller (1928–30), the German and the Prussian administrations had agreed on the need to counter the threat posed by the National Socialist movement. The means of doing so were provided by the Weimar constitution, which expressly forbade public servants to engage in political activity of any kind on behalf of a group deemed to be anti-constitutional. On 25 May 1930, the Prussian government issued an order making it illegal for Prussian civil servants to be members of the NSDAP or the Communist Party (KPD). Braun urged his colleagues in the national government to follow suit with a federal prohibition. The SPD Reich Interior Minister Carl Severing agreed and preparations were put in train to have the Nazis banned as an anti-constitutional organization. Had this measure succeeded, it would have enabled the cabinet to prevent the infiltration of government bodies (including the German army) by card-carrying National Socialists. Action could also have been taken against the Thuringian state government, where the appointment of the National Socialist Heinrich Frick to the interior ministry had opened the door to a rapid infiltration of the bureaucracy by Nazis.57

Things changed after the September elections. Heinrich Brüning, Müller’s successor as chancellor, dropped the idea of a ban, stating publicly that it would be fatal to make the mistake of regarding the NSDAP as a threat comparable to the Communist Party. He continued to play down the threat posed by the Nazis, even after the discovery in 1931 of a cache of documents belonging to an SA leader that contained plans for a violent overthrow of the Weimar regime and lists of death sentences to be carried out thereafter. Brüning’s long-term aim was to replace the Weimar constitution with something closer to the old imperial one. This goal could be achieved only if the left were disabled and pushed out of politics. Brüning planned to dislodge the SPD from their Prussian stronghold by merging the office of Prussian minister-president with that of Reich chancellor – a return to the Bismarckian model of 1871. At the same time, Brüning aimed to exclude the Social Democrats from the exercise of political power altogether through the creation of an integrated right-wing power bloc that would incorporate the Nazis in a subordinate role.

In pursuit of this objective, the Brüning administration directly obstructed the efforts of the Prussian government to neutralize the Nazi movement. In December 1931, Albert Grzesinski, police president of Berlin, a former interior minister of Prussia, and one of the most energetic defenders of democracy against extremism, persuaded Otto Braun to have Adolf Hitler arrested. But Brüning refused to allow the arrest to go ahead. The Prussians were informed that if they attempted to deport Hitler, Reich President Hindenburg would countermand the order using an emergency decree that had already been drawn up for the purpose. On 2 March 1932, Prussian Minister-President Otto Braun sent Heinrich Brüning a 200-page dossier analysing in detail the activities of the NSDAP and demonstrating that the party was a seditious organization dedicated to undermining the constitution and overthrowing the republic. Accompanying the dossier was a letter informing the chancellor that a Prussia-wide prohibition of the SA was imminent. Only now, under pressure, did Brüning respond by urging Hindenburg to support nationwide action against the Nazis. The result was the emergency decree of 13 April 1932 banning all National Socialist paramilitary organizations throughout the Reich.

This was a victory of sorts. In a limited way, the Prussian state was fulfilling its promise as the bulwark of democracy in the Weimar Republic. But the position of the republican coalition remained extremely fragile. It seemed reasonable to assume that the millions who had voted Nazi in the national elections of September 1930 might well do so again at the next Prussian election of 1932. The size of the problem was made clear in February 1931, when a loose alliance of right-wing parties – including the DNVP and the Nazis – secured the introduction of a plebiscite proposing the dissolution of the Prussian Landtag. When the plebiscite went to the polls in August 1931, it received the support of no fewer than 9.8 million Prussians, with a marked concentration in the agrarian eastern provinces – not enough to secure dissolution, but worrying none the less.58 In many areas new recruits were still streaming to the Nazi Storm Troopers, despite the government ban on their activities – in Upper and Lower Silesia, the numbers of (now clandestine) SA members jumped from 17,500 in December 1931 to 34,500 in July 1932.59 Street violence remained a problem, as Nazis, Communists, police and men of the Reichsbanner, a republican militia, slugged it out on the streets with blackjacks, brass knuckles and firearms.60

By the spring of 1932, as preparations got under way for the next state elections, it was clear that the result would leave the Prussian government without a democratic majority. The Prussian elections of 24 April 1932 confirmed the worst fears of the beleaguered republicans. In an election marked by an exceptionally high rate of participation (81 per cent), the Nazis weighed in with 36.3 per cent of the popular vote. The main victim of this success was the DNVP (whose share shrank to 6.9 per cent) and the liberal DDP and DVP, which collapsed into splinter parties controlling 1.5 per cent each. The Communists registered their best result to date, with 12.8 per cent. A curious interregnum thus ensued: under the revised procedural regulations of the Prussian Landtag, the right-wing anti-republican opposition could not accede to power because it was incapable of mustering a majority – a coalition with the Communists was out of the question. So the SPD-led government coalition under Otto Braun remained nominally in office, though it was unable to command a majority and was thus dependent on its emergency powers. On 14 July 1932, the annual state budget had to be passed by emergency decree. Democratic Prussia had lost its mandate.

At the national level, too, there were ominous political developments with far-reaching consequences for the state of Prussia. By the spring of 1932, the conservatives in President Hindenburg’s entourage – and the president himself – had lost faith in Brüning. He had made no progress against the Social Democrats in Prussia. He had also done nothing to integrate the right into a conservative bloc capable of driving the left out of politics. In the presidential elections of 10 April 1932, to Hindenburg’s profound consternation, the right-wing parties all put forward their own candidates, leaving the Centre Party and the Social Democrats to vote the 84-year-old incumbent back into office. Hindenburg, once a celebrated figurehead of the nationalist right, had become the candidate of socialists and Catholics.61 Nothing could better have demonstrated the failure of Brüning’s plans to prepare the way for a conservative restoration. Hindenburg was thus in an ill humour when his attention was drawn to legislation under preparation by the Brüning government to partition a number of financially unviable East-Elbian estates and parcel them out as smallholdings for the unemployed. For Hindenburg, himself a landowner with numerous close connections in the Junker milieu, this amounted to agrarian Bolshevism.62 Brüning had no majority in the Reichstag and he had forfeited the support of the President. On 30 May 1932, he drew the consequences and resigned.

Brüning’s departure removed the last semblance of a functioning Weimar democracy. What replaced him was a junta of ultra-conservatives determined to dismantle the republican system without delay. Hindenburg appointed the new chancellor, Franz von Papen, on 1 June 1932. Papen was a Westphalian nobleman and landowner, an old friend of the president, and a man of truly reactionary instincts. The most influential figure in the cabinet was the Reichswehr minister Kurt von Schleicher, a seasoned intriguer who had persuaded the President to appoint Papen. Another key player was Reich Interior Minister Wilhelm von Gayl. Gayl, Papen and Schleicher disagreed on a number of tactical issues, but they were all enthusiastic exponents of a conservative ‘new state’ that would do away with political parties and cut back the powers of elected assemblies at every level. They also agreed that the time had come to roll back the republican system.

The first step was to appease the Nazis and win them over to collaboration on terms acceptable to the conservatives. Hitler had long been calling for a further Reichstag dissolution and on 4 June, only three days after his appointment, Chancellor von Papen secured a decree of dissolution from the President. Ten days later, he suspended the nation-wide ban on the SS and SA in return for a promise from Hitler that the Nazi Reichstag fraction would not oppose his continuation in office or vote down his emergency decrees.63 The ‘integration of the right’ had begun.

Prussia was next on the list. Kurt von Schleicher, the most influential figure in the camarilla around Reich President Paul von Hindenburg, had long been in favour of using presidential emergency powers to do away with the Prussian government by transferring its responsibilities to the national executive.64 In a cabinet meeting of 11 July 1932, the new interior minister, Wilhelm Freiherr von Gayl, called for what he described as a ‘final solution’ of the Prussian problem:

The young, ever larger and more inclusive circles of the Adolf Hitler movement must, in order to render the forces of the nation useful to the reconstruction of the people, free itself from the chains that were laid upon it by Brüning and Severing and must be supported in the victorious struggle against international Communism. [… ] In order to free the way for [this] task and in order to strike a blow against the Socialist-Catholic coalition in Prussia, the dualism between the Reich and Prussia must be eliminated once and for all through the removal of the Prussian government.65

Since Gayl had already agreed these points in separate meetings with Papen and Schleicher, his proposals went uncontested. Five days later, on 16 July, Papen informed his cabinet colleagues that he had a ‘blank cheque’ from the Reich President to proceed against Prussia.66

While the plans of the presidential clique matured, the Nazis were making the fullest use of the opportunities created by Papen’s suspension of the ban against the SS and the SA. From 12 June, Nazi Storm Troops swarmed back on to the streets in search of a final reckoning with the Communists. There was a wave of street violence. The mayhem reached a high point in Altona, a busy harbour and manufacturing town adjoining Hamburg, but situated within the Prussian province of Holstein. Here, on the ‘Bloody Sunday’ of 17 July 1932, the Nazis mounted a provocative procession through the working-class (and largely Communist) quarter of the town. In the mêlée that followed, eighteen were killed – most by police gunfire – and over 100 wounded. Papen and his colleagues saw their moment. Arguing that the Prussian government had failed in its duty to impose law and order within its territory – a fantastically cynical charge, given that it was Papen himself who had suspended the ban on the paramilitary organizations – the chancellor secured from Hindenburg an emergency decree on 20 July 1932 deposing the government of Minister-President Otto Braun and replacing the Prussian ministers with ‘commissary’ agents of the national executive.67 Albert Grzesinski, his deputy president of police in Berlin, Bernhard Weiss, and Marcus Heimannsberg, the Centre Party man who had risen through the ranks to a senior post in the service, were all imprisoned and then released when they undertook to withdraw peacefully from their official duties. A state of emergency was declared in Berlin.

The SPD leadership responded with profound passivity and resignation to this utterly illegal manoeuvre. It had been known for some weeks that an action of this kind was being prepared, but no attempt was made to plan or organize resistance. In December 1931, the Social Democrats had formed a defence organization called the Iron Front, consisting of a militia called the Reichsbanner, various union organizations and a network of workers’ sporting clubs, but it was not mobilized or even placed on alert. Even after the events of 17 July in Altona, when the SPD in Berlin learned that a coup was imminent, nothing was done. On the contrary, at a meeting held on the day after ‘Bloody Sunday’, the party leadership agreed not to issue a call for a general strike and not to authorize armed resistance. This was encouraging, to say the least, for Papen and his co-conspirators, who could now be fairly sure that the coup would pass without serious opposition.

The reasons for this regrettable lethargy are easy enough to discern. The Prussian Social Democrats and their coalition allies were already demoralized by their failure to assemble a majority in the Landtag after the state elections of April 1932. As principled democrats, they felt politically undermined by the verdict of the electorate. For a legally minded man such as Otto Braun, the move from officialdom into insurgency did not come naturally: ‘I have been a democrat for forty years,’ he told his secretary, ‘and I am not about to become a guerrilla chief.’68 Braun and many of his associates thought the centralization of the Reich and the partitioning of Prussia were inevitable in the long run – did this perhaps disincline them to take a stand over the issue of state rights, however appalled they might be by the political machinations behind the coup?69 The balance of forces was in any case stacked against the Prussian government. The call for a general strike – the weapon that had brought down Kapp and Lüttwitz in 1920 – would have been futile, given the high level of unemployment in 1932.

There had always been friction between the Prussian ministries and the army ministry in Berlin, and it was clear that the Reichswehr leadership did not oppose the foreclosure of Prussia. Resisting the coup might thus mean a fight between the Prussian police and the German army, and it was uncertain how police units would react. The Nazis had been quite successful in some areas in infiltrating police social networks – it was forbidden under the decree of 25 June 1930 for policemen to be active National Socialists, but the Nazis got around this by placing activists within the Association of Former Police Officers, a body of conservative outlook that was receptive to the Nazi critique of the republic and maintained multifarious links with the men still in active service.70 Had they been raised, the 200,000 paramilitaries of the republican Reichsbanner would have faced Nazi and conservative militia forces numbering over 700,000. Finally, there was the fact that the Social Democratic Minister-President Otto Braun was ill, not to mention physically and emotionally exhausted.

Instead, the Prussian coalition leaders looked to the German constitutional court in Leipzig, which they presumed would declare the coup illegal, and to the forthcoming national elections, which they believed would punish the conservatives around Papen for their wanton destruction of a respected republican institution. Both hopes were disappointed. In the national elections of 31 July 1932, the Nazis emerged as the strongest party in Germany, with 37.4 per cent of all votes cast. It was the party’s greatest ever performance in a free election. In a mealy-mouthed verdict, the Constitutional Court rejected the charge that the Prussian authorities had been negligent in pursuing their duties, but failed to deliver the outright condemnation of the coup that the democrats so desperately needed. The moment for a last-ditch defence of the republic had passed. ‘You only have to bare your teeth at the reds and they knuckle under,’ the Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels gloated in his diary entry for 20 July. On the following day he added: ‘The Reds are finished. [They] have missed their big chance. It will never come again.’71

The putsch against Prussia ushered in the terminal phase of the Weimar Republic. Papen, Schleicher and the ‘cabinet of barons’, a team of conservative technocrats of noble lineage who were virtually unknown to the wider German public, began to tighten the screws. Vorwärts!, the moderate daily paper of the SPD, was banned twice, and official warnings were issued to the left-liberal Berliner Volkszeitung.72 There was also a small but significant adjustment to Prussian judicial practice. In the province of Hanover and the Cologne court district, the guillotine was still used for judicial executions. However, as Reich Commissioner for Prussia, Papen ordered on 5 October 1932 that the use of the guillotine – a device bearing the imprint of the French Revolution – be discontinued. In its place, state executioners were to use the older, Germanic and ‘Prussian’ hand-held axe. Here was a clear signal of Papen’s intention to ‘roll back’ the French Revolution, of which the Social Democrats were the ideological heirs, and annul its historical consequences.73 Small wonder that some among the Nazi leadership feared the Papen government would ‘do too much and leave nothing over for us’.74

Papen’s days in government were already numbered. During the chancellorship of Heinrich Brüning, the SPD had tolerated the chancellor in order to secure the system against a Nazi challenge. But after the coup against Prussia, Papen forfeited any hope of further support from the Social Democrats. Frustrated by the intrigues of Papen and his collaborators, the Nazis, too, returned to open opposition. There was now no prospect that the Chancellor would be able to muster a majority within the new parliament. On 12 September 1932, the new Reichstag passed a vote of no confidence. The motion had the support of 512 deputies. Only forty-two deputies supported Papen. There were five abstentions. It was hardly a workable parliamentary base.

There were now two possibilities. The Papen government could once again dissolve the Reichstag and announce new elections. Then, at least, they would have three months’ time – sixty days until the election and thirty more until the new Reichstag met. Ninety days of reprieve, before the process restarted itself. German democracy had been reduced to this, the machine-like repetition of the electoral reflex at the heart of the republic, a rhythmic spasm that would eventually tear the system apart. But there was an alternative, namely the dissolution of the Reichstag withoutelections. There was even a precedent for this course of action in Prussian history: Bismarck’s open break with the Prussian parliament during the constitutional crisis in 1862. At that time Bismarck had succeeded in overcoming a deadlock between government and parliament by breaking the constitution and ruling without the legislature. This alternative was open to Papen and Hindenburg. Reich President Hindenburg was old enough – he was born in 1847(!) – to have lived as a young adult through the crisis of the 1860s. He was also a man of Bismarck’s own class and social background whose family must have followed these events with intense interest.

Papen considered the option of a Bismarckian coup d’état, but turned it down. It was clear that a coup would bring grave risks; it might even provoke civil war – this possibility was discussed in the national cabinet. There was also uncertainty about the attitude of the Reichswehr, whose political spokesman, Kurt von Schleicher, was fast emerging as the chancellor’s rival. Papen thus opted to call yet another election for 6 November 1932. But the results of this contest, in which the Nazis shed a few percentage points but remained the strongest party, made it clear that a new Reichstag would be no more willing to tolerate Papen as chancellor than the old one had been. It was certain that the new Reichstag would use its first session to pass a vote of no confidence. Papen had to go. He was replaced on 1 December 1932 by his former friend Kurt von Schleicher. Schleicher’s first achievement as Chancellor was to get the Reichstag to agree not to meet until after Christmas. Elections during the Christmas season, and for the third time in one year, would have been too much for the German Volk to bear. The Reichstag’s Council of Elders agreed that parliament would not meet again until 31 January 1933.

By the time it did so, Franz von Papen had persuaded his old friend Hindenburg to appoint Hitler Reich chancellor. After extensive negotiations behind the scenes, Papen was able to make Hindenburg an offer he couldn’t refuse. Hitler had agreed that if he were to be appointed chancellor, he would take only two National Socialists into the cabinet. The other seven ministers would be conservatives, and Papen himself would be vice-chancellor. Hemmed in thus, Hitler would be forced to take account of the conservative camarilla.75‘Within two months,’ Papen crowed, ‘we will have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeak.’76

And so it was that Hitler, as Alan Bullock put it many years ago, was ‘jobbed into office by a backstairs intrigue’.77 The Nazi seizure of power had not ended. On the contrary, it had just begun. But the Nazis had a few important cards in their hands. Thanks to Papen’s putsch of 20 July 1932, the elected state government of Prussia had been replaced by a Reich Commissariat for Prussia. This meant, among other things, that Hermann Goering could occupy a ministerial post without portfolio in the national cabinet and at the same time function as commissarial Prussian minister of the interior, a post that placed him in charge of Germany’s largest police force. During the spring of 1933, Goering would make ruthless and effective use of his Prussian policing powers. In this way – and not only in this way – the extravagant manoeuvres of the conservatives around the President before January 1933 helped to smooth the way towards a National Socialist monopoly of power.

Threads of the Prussian legacy were thickly woven into the skein of intrigues that brought the Nazis to power. We see them in the attitude of the army, which stood aloof from the republic after 1930, assessing the situation as it unfolded and playing its own game. We see them in the susceptibility of President Hindenburg to the arguments of the East-Elbian landed interest. Chancellors Brüning and Schleicher both lost credit with the President as soon as they began to support land reform initiatives involving the partitioning of bankrupt East-Elbian estates. The still vivid memory of conservative hegemony in the old state of Prussia breathed life into the political fantasies of the reactionaries who helped to disable the republic.78 The corporate arrogance of the Prussian nobility and its presumption of a right to lead were also in evidence, nowhere more clearly than in Franz von Papen’s boast that he and his cabinet of barons had ‘engaged’ Hitler, as if the Nazi leader were a part-time gardener or a passing minstrel. For Hindenburg, too, a sense of the vast difference in station and dignity between himself, a field marshal of the Prussian army, and Hitler, the Austrian corporal, made it difficult to see who Hitler really was, to apprehend the threat that he represented, and to understand how easily he would dissolve convention and order in politics.

But the democrats and republicans of the state government were also Prussians, albeit from a very different social world. The energetic Albert Grzesinski hailed from Tollense near Treptow in Pomerania. Born the illegitimate son of a Berlin housemaid, he completed his training as a panel-beater in Berlin, before making a career as a trade union official and political activist. After the revolution, Grzesinski could have taken office in the national German government – he was offered the army ministry in 1920 – but he chose instead to serve the Prussian state, both as police president in Berlin (1925–6 and 1930–32) and as interior minister (1926–30). In both roles he pursued a robustly republican personnel policy. In 1927 he oversaw the drafting of laws eliminating the special police jurisdiction of the rural estate districts. In removing this last vestige of Junker feudal privilege, Grzesinski closed a fissure in the administrative fabric of the state, completed the work of the Prussian reformers of the Napoleonic era and earned the lasting hatred of the right. As a robust anti-Nazi, Grzesinski also attracted the intense loathing of the Goebbels press, which repeatedly (and erroneously) denounced him as a ‘Jew in a Jewish Republic’.79 In December 1931 he worked on a deportation order expelling Hitler from Prussia, only to find it blocked by the national government under Brüning. In a widely noticed speech in Leipzig at the beginning of 1932, Grzesinski declared it ‘lamentable’ that ‘the foreigner Hitler’ should be allowed to negotiate with the Reich government, ‘instead of being chased away with a dog whip’. Hitler did not forget or forgive these words and Grzesinski wisely fled Germany in 1933, first for France and later for New York, where he earned his living once again as a panel-beater.80 Here was a career driven by a deep commitment, not only to democracy as such, but to the specific historical calling of the Prussian state and its institutions.

The same can be said for the man who served at the helm of the Prussian state until 1932, Minister-President Otto Braun. The son of a low-ranking Königsberg railway employee, Braun joined the Social Democratic Party in 1888, when it was still illegal in Bismarck’s Prussia. He won notice and respect for his work among landless rural East-Elbian labourers and the sharpness of his editorial pen. He had held a seat in the old Prussian Landtag, one of a small band of Social Democrat deputies who managed to squeeze through the barriers of the three-class franchise. As a champion of the rural proletariat, Braun was the antitype of the old-Prussian agrarian elite whose political hegemony he helped to overthrow in 1918–19. Yet he was as emphatically and unmistakably Prussian as they. His endless appetite for work, his fastidious attention to detail, his dislike of posturing, and his profound sense of the nobility of state service were all attributes from the conventional catalogue of Prussian virtues. Even his authoritarian style of management, which earned him the nickname ‘the red tsar of Prussia’, could be construed as an ancestral Prussian trait. ‘A Social Democrat like Otto Braun,’ the conservative journalist Wilhelm Stapel observed in 1932, ‘is, for all the anti-Prussianism of his party, more a Prussian than a German. His demeanour in office is that of the Junker who leaves an ungrateful king to his own devices and “grows his own cabbage”.’81Braun even became a passionate hunter, a pastime he shared with Reich President Paul von Hindenburg. The two men hunted in adjacent areas during the season and developed a comfortable personal intimacy that allowed them to exchange views on the key political issues of the day.82 Here again was evidence of the curious affinity between the Social Democratic Party elite and the Prussian state that had once been its nemesis. It is striking that SPD leaders of this era found it far easier to handle the responsibilities and risks of state power in Prussia than they did in the German Reich.


55. Otto Braun, Prussian minister-president. Portrait by Max Liebermann, 1932.

We might thus say that on 20 July 1932, the day of the putsch, the old Prussia destroyed the new. Or, to put it more precisely, particularist, agrarian Prussia laid an axe to the universalist, state-centred Prussia of the Weimar coalition. Traditional society, one might argue, prevailed at last over the modernizing state; the descendants of von der Marwitz triumphed over the spirit of Hegel. But this metaphorical antinomy, though it certainly captures part of the meaning of what happened in the summer of 1932, is perhaps too neat. The men of the putsch against Prussia were hardly Junkers of the classic type. Papen was a Westphalian Catholic, Wilhelm von Gayl a Rhinelander – both were, in this sense, ‘marginal Prussians’.83 Even Kurt von Schleicher, though the son of a Silesian officer, was an untypical figure, a political intriguer from outside the provincial landowning elite; his politics, a hybrid blend of authoritarian corporatism and constitutionalism, remain difficult to pigeon-hole.84All three men pursued a politics of the nation, not of the Prussian state and certainly not of the Prussian province.

Hindenburg, the man at the centre of events in 1932, is a complex case. As an East-Elbian estate-owner and celebrated commanding officer, Hindenburg appeared to embody the Prussian tradition. But his life was formed by the forces that unified the German Reich. He was eighteen when he fought at Königgraätz during the Austrian war of 1866. He hailed from the province of Posen, an area of heightened nationalist antagonism between Germans and Poles. Having returned from retirement at the beginning of the First World War, he used his role at the apex of the German forces on the eastern front to challenge and hollow out the authority of the Prussian-German civilian executive. He blackmailed the Kaiser, to whom he professed the deepest personal loyalty, into compliance with his projects, which included the catastrophic policy of unconditional submarine warfare – a provocative and futile campaign that brought the United States into the war and doomed Germany to defeat at the hands of her enemies. One by one, he picked off the Kaiser’s closest allies – including Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg – and drove them out of politics. This was not the one-off conscientious objection of a Seydlitz or a Yorck – it was systematic insubordination born of vast ambition and an utter disregard of any interest or authority outside the military hierarchy that he himself dominated. At the same time, Hindenburg deliberately cultivated the national obsession with his own person, projecting the image of an indomitable Germanic warrior that overshadowed the increasingly marginal figure of the Emperor-king.

Although Hindenburg was among those who urged William II to abdicate and flee to Holland in November 1918, he subsequently shrouded himself in the mantle of a principled monarchism. Later again (on ascending to the office of Reich president in 1925 and on his reappointment in 1932), he put aside his monarchist convictions to swear a solemn oath to the republican constitution of the German Empire. In the last days of September 1918, Hindenburg urgently pressed the German civilian government to initiate ceasefire negotiations, yet he later disassociated himself entirely from the resulting peace, leaving the civilians to carry the responsibility and the opprobrium. On 17 June 1919, when the government of Friedrich Ebert was deliberating over whether to accept the terms of the Versailles Treaty, Hindenburg conceded in writing that further military resistance would be hopeless. Yet only a week later, when President Ebert called the Supreme Command for a clear formal decision in support of acceptance, the field marshal contrived to be absent from the telephone room during the call, leaving his colleague Wilhelm Groener to play the ‘bête noire’ (as Hindenburg himself put it).85 Hindenburg went even further: in perhaps the most mythopoeic moment of a myth-saturated career, he claimed in November 1919 before the commission investigating the causes of the German defeat that the German armies in the field had not been vanquished by the enemy powers, but by a cowardly ‘stab in the back’ from the home front – this conceit would haunt the republic throughout its short life, tainting the new political elite with intimations of treachery and betrayal of the nation.

As Reich president after 1925, Hindenburg developed – despite all the social distance between them – an unlikely friendship with the conscientious Social Democratic Prussian Minister-President Otto Braun. In 1932, when Hindenburg stood for re-election to the presidency, Braun endorsed the old man warmly as ‘the embodiment of calm and consistency, of manly loyalty and devotion to duty for the whole people’.86 Yet in 1932, presented with the schemes of the conservative camarilla, Hindenburg abandoned his erstwhile friend without, as it seems, the slightest compunction, withdrawing from his solemn constitutional oaths of 1925 and 1932 to make common cause with the sworn enemies of the republic. And then, having publicly declared that he would never consent to appoint Hitler to any post more elevated than minister of postal services, Hindenburg levered the Austrian Nazi leader into the German chancellery in January 1933. The field marshal had a high opinion of himself and he doubtless sincerely believed that he personified a Prussian ‘tradition’ of selfless service. But he was not, in truth, a man of tradition. He was not in any deterministic sense a product of the old Prussia, but rather of the flexible power politics that fashioned the new Germany. As a military commander and later as Germany’s head of state, Hindenburg broke virtually every bond he entered into. He was not the man of dogged, faithful service, but the man of image, manipulation and betrayal.


On 21 March 1933, the Garrison Church at Potsdam provided the setting for a ceremony marking the inauguration of the ‘new Germany’ under Adolf Hitler. The occasion was the opening of the new Reichstag following the national elections of 5 March 1933. It was a festivity that would usually have been conducted in the Reichstag building itself. But on 27 February the Dutch leftist Marinus van der Lubbe had torched the building, reducing the main chamber to a blackened ruin. Built by Frederick William I in 1735, the Garrison Church was an eloquent memorial to Prussia’s military history. Mounted on the church tower was a weather vane bearing the initials FWR and the iron silhouette of a Prussian eagle aspiring towards a gilded sun. Trumpets, flags and cannon, rather than angels or biblical figures, decorated the stone of the chancel. The tombs of the ‘soldier king’ Frederick William I and his illustrious son Frederick the Great lay side by side in the crypt.87 Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, saw immediately the symbolic potential of this historic setting and he took personal control of the preparations, planning the event in painstaking detail as a propaganda spectacle. After all, as he noted in a diary entry of 16 March 1933, this was the moment when the ‘new state’ inaugurated by Hitler’s appointment to the chancellorship would ‘present itself symbolically for the first time’.88

The ‘Day of Potsdam’, as it has come to be known, was a concentrated act of political communication. It offered the image of a synthesis, even a mystical union, between the old Prussia and the new Germany.89 Veterans of the Wars of Unification were ferried to the town to take part in the festivities. The flags of the most venerable Prussian regiments – including the renowned IX Infantry, whose recruits were traditionally sworn in under the vaults of the Garrison Church – were placed on prominent display. The streets of the city were decked with German imperial, Prussian and swastika flags. The red, black and gold tricolour of the Weimar Republic was nowhere to be seen. Even the date was significant. Goebbels had chosen 21 March not only because it was officially the first day of spring, but also because it was the anniversary of the opening of the first German Reichstag after the proclamation of the German Reich in January 1871. At the centre of the proceedings was Reich President Hindenburg. Decked out in full uniform, glittering with medals of every shape and size, and clutching his field marshal’s baton in his right hand, Hindenburg processed at a stately pace through the streets of the old town past ranks of Reichswehr men and brown-shirted paramilitaries with their arms raised in salute. As he took up his prominent seat before the altar, he turned to acknowledge with a solemn flourish of his marshal’s baton the empty throne of the former king and Emperor William II, now in Dutch exile. This exercise in humbug was devised in part for the benefit of the two Hohenzollern princes in attendance, one in the traditional uniform of the Death’s Head Hussars, the other in the brown outfit of an SA man.


56. The Day of Potsdam, 21 March 1933. Hitler and Hindenburg shake hands in front of the Garrison Church in Potsdam.

In his speech to the assembled guests, Hindenburg expressed the hope that ‘the ancient spirit of this place of renown’ would enthuse a new generation of Germans. Prussia had earned greatness through ‘never-failing courage and love of fatherland’; might the same apply to the new Germany. In his reply from the reader’s lectern, Hitler – wearing a dark tailored lounge suit rather than his party uniform – expressed his profound veneration for Hindenburg and gave thanks for the ‘Providence’ that had placed this indomitable warlord at the head of the movement for Germany’s renewal. He closed with words that summed up the propagandistic function of the ceremony: ‘As we stand in this space that is holy to every German, may Providence bestow upon us that courage and that steadfastness that we feel as we struggle for the freedom and greatness of our people at the foot of the tombs of the greatest of kings.’90 Having shaken hands before the congregation, the two men laid wreaths on the tombs of the Prussian kings, while a battery of Reichswehr guns outside the church fired a salute and the choir within belted out the ‘Leuten Chorale’. There followed a military review through the streets of the city. Goebbels recalled the moment in an effusive diary entry:

The Reich President stands on a raised platform, the Field Marshal’s baton in his hand, and greets Army, SA, SS and Stahlhelm as they march past him. He stands and waves. Over the whole scene shines the eternal sun, and God’s hand stands invisibly bestowing his blessing over the grey city of Prussian greatness and duty.91

The celebration of ‘Prussiandom’ was a consistent strand of National Socialist ideology and propaganda. The right-wing ideologue and inventor of the idea of the ‘Third Reich’, Arthur Moeller van der Bruck, had prophesied in 1923 that the new Germany would be a synthesis of the ‘manly’ spirit of Prussia with the ‘feminine’ soul of the German nation.92 In Mein Kampf, published two years later, Adolf Hitler found warm words for the old Prussian state. It was the ‘germ cell of the German Empire’, which owed its very existence to the ‘resplendent heroism’ and ‘death-defying courage of its soldiers’; its history demonstrated ‘with marvellous sharpness that not material qualities but ideal virtues alone make possible the formation of a state’.93‘Our ears still ring,’ wrote the Nazi Baltic-German ideologue Alfred Rosenberg in 1930, ‘with the trumpets of Fehrbellin and the voice of the Great Elector, whose deed spelt the beginning of Germany’s resurrection, salvation and rebirth.’ Whatever one might criticize in Prussia, he added, ‘the decisive salvation of Germanic substance will remain forever its deed of renown; without it there would be no German culture, and no trace of a German people.’94

No one trumpeted the Prussian theme more consistently than Joseph Goebbels, who first became aware of its propaganda potential during a visit to Sans Souci in September 1926. Prussia thereafter remained one of the stock themes of the Goebbels publicity machine. ‘National Socialism,’ he claimed in an election speech of April 1932, ‘can justly lay claim to Prussiandom. All over Germany, wherever we National Socialists stand, we are the Prussians. The idea we carry is Prussian. The symbols for which we fight are filled with the spirit of Prussia, and the objectives we hope to achieve are a renewed form of the ideals for which Frederick William I, the Great Frederick and Bismarck once strove.’95

The continuity between the Prussian past and the National Socialist present was asserted at many levels in the cultural policy of the regime after 1933. A famous political poster depicted Hitler as the latest in a succession of German statesmen extending from Frederick the Great via Bismarck to Hindenburg. Shortly after the ‘Day of Potsdam’, Hitler and Goebbels reinforced public awareness of these themes with the ‘Days of Tannenberg’, a propaganda spectacle centred on the inauguration of a vast national monument on 27 August 1933. Consisting of a circle of vast towers joined by massive walls, the Tannenberg monument recalled both the defeat of the German Order at the hands of a Muscovite army in 1410 and the victory of 1914 by which the Germans took ‘revenge’ on their erstwhile Russian foes. It also served to project the (utterly unhistorical) idea that East Prussia had always been the bastion of ‘Germandom’ against the Slavic east. As the ‘Victor of Tannenberg’, the 87-year-old Hindenburg was once again wheeled out to perform the liturgical honours for a now irreversibly Nazified Germany. When he died almost a year later, his body – along with that of his wife – was entombed in one of the towers of the monument. In accordance with the dead man’s wish that he should be buried ‘under a single slab of East Prussian stone’ the entrance to his tomb was surmounted with a huge lintel of solid granite, the ‘Hindenburg Stone’. This stone had been unearthed near Cojehnen in the flatlands of northern East Prussia, and was well known to German geologists as one of the largest monoliths in the region. Working to tight deadlines, a team of stonemasons and mining specialists cleared the earth from around the granite mass, cut it with explosive charges and power tools into a vast oblong and transported it to the monument on a purpose-built railway.96


57. The ‘Hindenburg stone’: workers rest after excavating earth from under the monolith, photograph, c.1930s

The official architecture of the Third Reich invoked a distinctively Prussian cultural heritage. We see it in the three ‘Ordensburgen’ constructed during the Third Reich at Crössinsee, Vogelsang and Sonthofen for the elite schooling of future party cadres. With their soaring towers and frowning eaves, these monumental structures recalled the castles of the German Order that had once conquered the ‘German east’ and established itself in the Baltic principality of Prussia. Another very different Prussian architectural legacy lived on in the neo-classical public buildings commissioned by the regime as part of the National Socialist reshaping of German urban space. Hitler’s favourite architect, Paul Ludwig Troost, was a disciple of Schinkel (1781–1841), the canonical exponent of the ‘Prussian building style’. Troost’s House of German Art, constructed in 1933–7 on the southern margin of the English Garden in Munich, was widely seen as a twentieth-century gloss on the austere neo-classicism of Schinkel’s Old Museum in Berlin.

Albert Speer, a party member from 1931 who became Hitler’s court architect after Troost’s early death in 1934, was likewise an admirer of Schinkel. Speer hailed from a family with a long architectural tradition – his grandfather had studied under Schinkel at the Berlin Academy of Building, and his most important teacher at the Technical University Berlin-Charlottenburg was Heinrich Tessenow, who was well known for having converted Schinkel’s Neue Wache on Unter den Linden into a memorial for the fallen of the First World War. The façade and courts of Speer’s New Reich chancellery, commissioned by Hitler at the beginning of 1938 and completed after twelve months of frenzied construction on 12 January 1939, made numerous conscious references to Schinkel’s most famous buildings. The continuity message was driven home in a sumptuous official volume published in 1943 under the auspices of the Reich Chamber of Architects. Entitled Karl Friedrich Schinkel: The Forerunner of the New German Architectural Ideology, the book expressly set out to locate the achievements of Nazi building within the Prussian neo-classicist tradition.97


58. Hindenburg’s coffin is carried into his mausoleum under the battlements of the Tannenberg monument; photograph, Matthias Bräunlich, 1935

Prussian subjects also featured prominently in the ideologically harmonized cinematic output of the German film studios after the Nazi seizure of power. Drawing on trends established during the Weimar Republic, Goebbels deployed Prussian themes as instruments of ideological mobilization.98The escapism and nostalgia of earlier productions made way for dramas with an unmistakable contemporary resonance. The Old and the Young King, for example, released in 1935, offered a grotesquely distorted account of the breakdown in the relationship between the future Frederick the Great and his father Frederick William I. The intrigues of British diplomacy were blamed for the misunderstanding between father and son, and there is a scene where the prince’s French books are piled up and burnt on the order of his father – a contemporary reference that audiences could not have failed to recognize. The execution of Katte is presented as the legitimate expression of a sovereign will. The dialogue included such gems of anachronism as the following: ‘I want to make Prussia healthy. And anyone who tries to stop me is a scoundrel’ (Frederick William); and ‘The king does not commit murder. His will is law. And whatever does not submit to him must be annihilated’ (an officer commenting on Katte’s sentence).99

Other major productions dwelt on anecdotal scenes from the life of Frederick the Great, or on dramatic plots set in the context of an historic crisis, such as the Seven Years War or the aftermath of the defeat at the hands of Napoleon in 1806–7. A favoured theme – especially during the war years – was the dramatic interplay between the perfidy of betrayal (of one’s country or one’s leader) and the redemption that comes with self-sacrifice in the name of the greater good.100 Nowhere was this theme more trenchantly presented than in the last major film production of the Third Reich, Kolberg. This was an epic period drama set in the eponymous fortress, where Gneisenau and Schill collaborated with the civil authorities in the town to hold the numerically superior French at bay. Against all odds – and contrary to the historical record – the French are forced to fall back and the town is unexpectedly saved by a peace treaty. Here was the image of Prussia as a kingdom of the pure will, holding out by courage and fortitude alone. The film’s purpose was obvious enough; it was a call to mobilize every last resource against the enemies who were closing in around Germany. It was, as the director Veit Harlan put it, a ‘symbol of the present’ that should give viewers strength ‘for today, for the time of our own struggle’. Whether this objective was achieved may be doubted: there were very few functioning cinemas by the time the film was available for general release. Where the film did find an audience, the response was one of resignation and gloom. Amid the ruins and chaos of spring 1945, there were very few Germans who could still believe that Germany might be rescued by the efforts of a band of patriots.

It would be a mistake to see all this purely as cynical manipulation. Goebbels had a remarkable propensity to believe his own lies. And Hitler’s subjective identification with Frederick the Great was so intense that the only decoration in the Reich Chancellery bunker, in which Hitler spent the last days of his life sixteen metres below the streets of Berlin, was Graff’s portrait of Frederick the Great. Throughout the war years, Hitler repeatedly compared himself to Frederick, the man to whose ‘heroism’ Prussia owed its historical ascendancy.101‘From this picture,’ he told the tank commander Guderian at the end of February 1945, ‘I always draw new strength when the bad news threatens to crush me.’ In the unreal, detached atmosphere of the bunker, it was easy to imagine that the history of Prussia was re-enacting itself in the epic drama of the Third Reich. Goebbels bolstered Hitler’s morale during the early months of 1945 with readings from Carlyle’s Life of Frederick the Great, especially those passages that described how in the darkest hour of the Seven Years War, when all seemed lost, Prussia was saved from destruction by the death of Tsarina Elisabeth in February 1762.102 Hitler drew on the same historical themes when he spent four days in early April 1945 trying to stiffen Mussolini’s resolve. The monologues he delivered at the war-weary Duce included long disquisitions on the history of Prussia.103 So tight was the grip of this historical romance on the mind of Goebbels that the propaganda minister responded with elation and a sense of triumph to the news of the death of President Franklin Roosevelt on 12 April 1945. He believed 1945 was to be the annus mirabilis of the Third Reich. He ordered that champagne be served in his office and immediately put a call through to Hitler’s apartment: ‘My Führer, I congratulate you. Roosevelt is dead! Fate has struck down your greatest enemy. God has not abandoned us.’104

None of this should be read as evidence of the continuing vitality of the ‘Prussian tradition’. Those who seek to legitimate a claim to power in the present often have recourse to the idea of tradition. They decorate themselves with its cultural authority. But the encounter between the self-proclaimed inheritors of tradition and the historical record rarely takes place on equal terms. The National Socialist reading of the Prussian past was opportunistic, distorted and selective. The entire historical career of the Prussian state was shoehorned into the paradigm of a national German history conceived in racist terms. The Nazis admired the military state-building of the ‘soldier king’ but had little sympathy for or understanding of the Pietist spirituality that provided an ethical framework for all the king’s endeavours and left such a deep imprint on his reign – hence, for example, the almost complete evacuation of Christianity from the ceremony in the Garrison Church in March 1933. The Frederick the Great of National Socialist propaganda was a heavily truncated version of the original – the monarch’s insistence on French as the medium of civilized discourse, his disdain for German culture and his ambiguous sexuality were simply airbrushed away. There was little interest in the other Hohenzollern monarchs, with the exception of Wilhelm I, founder of the German Empire of 1871. Frederick William II and Frederick William IV, the sensitive and artistically gifted ‘romantic on the throne’ disappeared almost entirely from view.

Two periods were singled out for their mythopoeic power: the Seven Years War and the Wars of Liberation, but there was no interest in the Prussian enlightenment. The Nazis prized the Prussian reformer Stein for his nationalist commitment; Hardenberg, by contrast, the Francophile Realpolitiker and emancipator of the Prussian Jews, languished in obscurity. There was some enthusiasm for Fichte and Schleiermacher, but little official interest in Hegel, whose emphasis on the transcendent dignity of the state was uncongenial to the völkisch racism of the National Socialists. In short, Nazi-Prussia was a glittering fetish assembled from fragments of a legendary past. It was a manufactured memory, a talismanic adornment to the pretensions of the regime.

In any case, none of this official enthusiasm for ‘Prussiandom’ (Preussentum) could revive the fortunes of the real Prussia. In 1933, the Prussian Landtag was dissolved after new elections had failed to yield a Nazi absolute majority. The Law on the Reorganization of the Reich of January 1934 placed regional governments and the new imperial commissars under the direct authority of the Reich ministry of the interior. The Prussian ministries were gradually merged with their Reich counterparts (with the exception, for technical reasons, of finance) and plans were drawn up (though they remained unrealized in 1945) to partition the state into its constituent provinces. Prussia was still an official designation and a name on the map, indeed it was the only German state not to be formally absorbed into the Reich. But it ceased de facto to exist as a state of any kind. There was no inconsistency here with the regime’sofficial celebrations of the Prussian legacy. The diffuse abstraction ‘Prussiandom’ did not denote a specific form of state, or a particular social constellation, but a disembodied catalogue of virtues, a ‘spirit’ that transcended history and would thrive at least as well in the ‘Führer-democracy’ of the Third Reich asit had under the absolutistrule of Frederick the Great. Hermann Goering, who replaced Papen as commissary minister-president of Prussia in April 1933, invoked this distinction when he addressed the Prussian Council of State in June 1934. ‘The concept of the Prussian state’, he declared, had been ‘subsumed into the Reich’. ‘What remains is the eternal spirit of Prussiandom.’105

Much to the disgust of some of the traditionalist noble families, the new regime made no attempt to restore the old monarchy after 1933. Throughout the 1920s, there had been frequent contacts between the ex-royal and -imperial entourage at Doorn and a loose network of (mainly Prussian) conservative and monarchist groups in the German Republic. The late 1920s brought closer informal ties with the Nazi movement: William II’s son, August William, joined the SA in 1928, an act for which he had the former Emperor’s permission. The ex-Emperor’s second wife, Princess Hermine von Schönaich-Carolath, had friends among the high-ranking party members and even participated in the Nuremberg Rally of 1929. The collapse of the conservative block and the success of the Nazis in the German elections of 1930 encouraged the restorationists at Doorn to put out formal feelers to the Hitler movement. Their fruit was a meeting at Doorn between William and Hermann Goering in January 1931. No minutes survive of this meeting, but it would seem that Goering spoke positively of the prospect of William’s returning to Germany.106

But despite these friendly signals – there were encouraging noises from Hitler and a second meeting with Goering in the summer of 1932 – the idea was unceremoniously dropped after the seizure of power. Hitler had encouraged the Kaiser’s hopes only because he wanted to strengthen his credentials as the legitimate successor to Prussia-Germany’s monarchical tradition. The moment of truth came on 27 January 1934, when Hitler ordered the breaking up of celebrations in honour of the Kaiser’s seventy-fifth birthday. The fate of the restoration movement was sealed a few days later by new legislation outlawing all monarchist organizations. The royal SA-man Prince August William was placed under house arrest during the Röhm Putsch and thereafter ordered to refrain from political utterances of any kind. Gradually, the regime erased the memory of monarchy in Prussia and Germany, prohibiting the display of imperial images and memorabilia, while paying the former royal family a substantial retainer to ensure that it caused no trouble.107 Among those who strongly objected was Count Ewald von Kleist-Wendisch-Tychow, regional chief of the Corporation of the German Nobility (Deutsche Adelsgenossenschaft) in Eastern Pomerania. In January 1937 he dissolved his section of the corporation, declaring that the regime’s refusal to restore the Prussian-German Crown was ‘not compatible with the traditions and honour of the nobility’.108

Characterizing the relationship between the Hitler regime and the Prussian traditional and functional elites is difficult. There has to date been no systematic study of attitudes and conduct within the German regional nobilities throughout the life of the Third Reich. But one thing is clear: the conventional picture of the landed nobility haughtily withdrawing to the splendid isolation of their estates and waiting for the Nazi storm to pass is misleading. There was hardly a single East-Elbian noble family that did not have at least one party member. The ancient lineage of the Schwerins supplied no fewer than fifty-two members, the Hardenbergs twenty-seven, the Tresckows thirty, the Schulenburgs forty-one, of whom seventeen had already joined the party before 1933. Many nobles were attracted to the NSDAP because they saw an alliance with the Hitler movement as the key to securing their traditional social leadership role on new terms.109 But others joined because they found the party’s ideology and ambience congenial – the attitudinal gap between noble circles and the National Socialist movement was narrower than has often been supposed.

There was also broad support within the Prussian nobility for the foreign policy objectives of the new regime – especially revision of the Versailles Treaty and the retrieval of lands transferred to the Poles. The paucity of Prussians within the leadership echelons of the NSDAP initially had an off-putting effect on some families – according to one assessment there were only seventeen Prussians among the 500 top Nazi cadres in 1933.110 But as the focus of the party’s activity – and its electoral base – shifted northwards, these misgivings often faded. Fritz-Dietlof Count von der Schulenburg was initially suspicious of the NSDAP because he saw it as an essentially south-German movement, but he later embraced it as ‘a new form of Prussiandom’ – here again that usefully obfuscating abstraction.111

The officer corps of the Reichswehr, in which the sons of Junker families still formed a substantial group, was initially sceptical of the Nazi movement but shifted after the March elections of 1933 towards a policy of alliance with the new leadership. Many senior officers were reassured by Hitler’s reprisals against the brownshirts in the Röhm Putsch of 31 June 1934. The commencement of the rearmament programme and the remilitarization of the Rhineland in March 1935 also helped to cement relations. A characteristic example of this transition was the inspector of weapons training in Berlin, Lieutenant-General Johannes Blaskowitz, who hailed from Peterswalde in East Prussia and had been educated in the cadet schools of Köslin and Berlin-Lichterfelde. In 1932, Blaskowitz had warned his regiment during an exercise that ‘if the Nazis make any false moves, [we] will proceed against them with maximum force, and [we] will not shrink even from the bloodiest conflict.’112 By the spring of 1935, however, he was speaking a different language. In a speech for the opening of a monument to the fallen of the First World War, Blaskowitz, the son of a Pietist East Prussian pastor, hailed Adolf Hitler as the man sent by God in Germany’s hour of need: ‘God’s help gave us our Leader, who has gathered all the forces of national life into one powerful movement [… ] and who has yesterday restored the military sovereignty of the German people and thereby fulfilled the testament of our dead heroes.’113

Prussians were, needless to say, deeply implicated in the atrocities committed by the SS and Security Police and by the German Wehrmacht, whose claim to a ‘clean’ wartime record has been comprehensively exploded. But being Prussian was not by any means a precondition for enthusiastic service in the regime’s cause. Bavarians, Saxons and Württembergers also served with zeal and distinction in all branches of the regime’s activity. The battalion of policemen whose mass shootings of Jewish men, women and children are so harrowingly documented in Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men were not Prussians, but natives of traditionally liberal, bourgeois, Anglophile Hamburg.114 The Austrians, those historical and cultural antipodes of the Prussians, were strikingly over-represented in the upper echelons of the Nazi machinery of mass murder – Odilo Globocnik, overseer of the death camps, Arthur Seyβ-Inquest Reichskommissar for the Occupied Netherlands, Hans Rauter, the SS and police official who deported 100,000 Dutch Jews to the East, Franz Stangl, the commandant of Sobibor (later transferred to Treblinka), were just a few of the more prominent Austrians implicated in the Holocaust.115 Such observations do nothing whatsoever to diminish the role played by Prussians in the criminal activities of the Third Reich, but they do undermine the view that Prussian values or habits of mind were in themselves a special qualification for zealous service.


59. The deportation of Jews from Memel, in what had once been Prussian Lithuania. In their campaign to murder German and European Jewry, the Nazi regime destroyed one highly distinctive strand of the Prussian heritage.

Prussians – and especially representatives of the traditional Prussian elites – also figured prominently within the ranks of the German national conservative resistance. Many of the old Pomeranian Pietist families – among them the Thaddens, Kleists and Bismarcks – supported the Confessing Church that emerged to resist the regime’s attempt to re-sculpt German Christianity.116 The active military resistance was, to be sure, never large enough to account for more than a very small fraction of men under arms. Yet it is significant that of the conspirators of 20 July 1944, two-thirds came from the Prussian milieu, and many from old and distinguished military families. Among those arrested immediately after the failed attempt on Hitler’s life was the former deputy police president of Berlin, Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, descendant of a family whose sons had served for centuries as officers of the Brandenburg-Prussian army. Another was the jurist and officer Peter Count Yorck von Wartenburg, a direct descendant of the Yorck who had walked across to the Russians at Tauroggen in December 1812. Field-Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, another prominent Prussian conspirator, was the scion of an old East-Elbian military family who had been chosen by the conspirators to take over the supreme command of the Wehrmacht after the assassination of Hitler. He was arrested on 21 July and subjected to weeks of torture and humiliations at the hands of the Gestapo. On 7 August 1944, still bearing the marks of his ill-treatment, he was brought before the People’s Court, where he stood holding up his beltless trousers and enduring the insults of Roland Freisler, Hitler’s hanging judge. He was hanged in the execution facility at Piötzensee the following day.117

No single unit of the German Wehrmacht was more deeply implicated in resistance activity than the Potsdam IX Infantry Regiment, a Prussian traditional regiment (it was the official successor to the I Prussian Foot Guards) with strong ties to the Potsdam Garrison Church. This was the regiment of Major-General Henning von Tresckow, who in March 1943 smuggled a package of explosives on to a plane carrying Hitler back to Berlin (the parcel failed to explode and was retrieved without incident at the other end). After collaborating closely with Stauffenberg and the other military conspirators, Tresckow blew himself up with a hand grenade on 21 July 1944. Captain Axel Freiherr von dem Bussche of the IX Regiment undertook to strap explosives to his body and destroy Hitler in a suicide bombing during a demonstration of new uniforms in 1943, but was refused leave to attend by his commanding officer on the eastern front. Lieutenant Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin agreed to take von dem Bussche’s place, but the planned demonstration was cancelled and the opportunity never arose. Other IX Regiment officers directly involved in the July plot included the son of former Chief of Staff Ludwig Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord, Captain Hans Fritzsche of the Potsdam Reserve and Lieutenant Georg Sigismund von Oppen, whose family ran an estate in Altfriedland, fifty kilometres to the east of Berlin. Hammerstein-Equord, Oppen and Fritzsche returned to regimental headquarters in time to escape notice and survived the reprisals that followed the assassination attempt, largely because Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg refused even under torture to reveal their names to the Gestapo. Several other members of the regiment were executed or committed suicide during the wave of reprisals that followed the collapse of the July plot.118

The motives for resistance varied. Many of the key figures had passed through a phase of infatuation with the Hitler movement and some had even become implicated in its crimes. Some were disgusted at the mass murder of Jews, Poles and Russians, others had religious reservations; some sought the restoration of the monarchy, though not necessarily of William II, whose flight to Holland had neither been forgotten nor forgiven. Prussian themes insinuated themselves into the resistance at many levels. The Kreisau Circle, for example, a network of mainly conservative civilian and military resisters centred on the Moltke estate at Kreisau in Silesia, were sceptical of the virtues of democracy (which, as they saw it, had failed to protect Germany against the advent of Hitler) and looked to the unelected upper chamber of the old Prussian Landtag as the model for an authoritarian alternative to modern parliamentary politics.119 Many of the resisters clung to the idea of Prussia as a vanished better world whose traditions were being perverted by the taskmasters of the Third Reich. ‘True Prussiandom can never be separated from the concept of freedom,’ Henning von Tresckow told a family gathering when his two sons were confirmed at the Garrison Church in the spring of 1943. Uncoupled from the imperatives of ‘freedom’, ‘understanding’ and ‘compassion’, he warned, the Prussian ideals of self-discipline and the fulfilment of duty would degenerate into ‘spiritless soldiery and narrow bigotry’.120

The historical imagination of the Prussian elite resistance was anchored in the mythical memory of the wars of liberation. The figure of Yorck, who risked the charge of betrayal and treason to walk across the snow to the Russians at Tauroggen, was a recurring example.121 When Carl Goerdeler, perhaps the most senior civilian associate of the military resistance, composed a memorandum urging the army to rise up against Hitler in the summer of 1940, he ended the document with an extended quotation from Baron Stein’s letter of 12 October 1808 urging Frederick William III to show his hand against Napoleon: ‘If nothing but misfortune and suffering can be expected, then it is better to take a decision that is honourable and noble and offers comfort and solace, should things end badly.’122 In later years he compared the defeats of North Africa and Stalingrad to the salutary disasters at Jena and Auerstädt.123 A particularly striking example comes from an exchange between the resister Rudolf von Gersdorff, author of an aborted suicide bombing of Hitler in the spring of 1943, and Field Marshal Erich von Manstein. When Manstein reproached Gersdorff for his seditious views, reminding him that Prussian field marshals did not mutiny, Gersdorff cited Yorck’s defection at Tauroggen.124

For the resisters Prussia became a virtual homeland, the focal point for a patriotism that could find no referent in the Third Reich. The charisma of this mythical Prussia was not lost upon the non-Prussians who moved within resistance circles. The Social Democrat Julius Leber, an Alsatian who grew up in Lübeck and was executed on 5 January 1945 for his part in the conspiracy against Hitler, was among those who looked back in admiration at the years when Stein, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst re-established the state ‘in the citizen’s consciousness of freedom’.125 There was an energetic polarity between the Prussia of Nazi propaganda and that of the civilian and military resistance. Goebbels used Prussian themes to drive home the primacy of loyalty, obedience and will as indispensable aids in Germany’s epic struggle against her enemies. The resisters, by contrast, insisted that these secondary Prussian virtues became worthless as soon as they were severed from their ethical and religious roots. For the Nazis, Yorck was the symbol of an oppressed Germany rising up against foreign ‘tyranny’ – for the resisters he represented a transcendent sense of duty that might even, under certain circumstances, articulate itself in an act of treason. We naturally look more kindly on one of these Prussia-myths than on the other. Yet both were selective, talismanic and instrumental. Precisely because it had become so abstract, so etiolated, ‘Prussiandom’ was up for grabs. It was not an identity, nor even a memory. It had become a catalogue of disembodied mythical attributes whose historical and ethical significance was, and would remain, in contention.


In the end, it was the Nazi view of Prussia that prevailed. The western allies needed no persuading that Nazism was merely the latest manifestation of Prussianism. They could draw on an intellectually formidable tradition of anti-Prussianism that dated back to the outbreak of the First World War. In August 1914, Ramsay Muir, a distinguished liberal activist and holder of the chair of modern history at the University of Manchester, published a widely read study that claimed to examine the ‘historical background’ of the current conflict. ‘It is the result,’ Muir wrote, ‘of a poison which has been working in the European system for more than two centuries, and the chief source of this poison is Prussia.’126 In another study published early in the war, William Harbutt Dawson, a social liberal publicist and one of the most influential commentators on German history and politics in early twentieth-century Britain, pointed to the militarizing influence of the ‘Prussian spirit’ within the otherwise benign German nation: ‘this spirit has ever been a hard and immalleable element in the life of Germany; it is still the knot in the oak, the nodule in the softer clay.’127

Common to many analyses was the notion that there were in fact two Germanies, the liberal, congenial and pacific Germany of the south and west and the reactionary, militaristic Germany of the north-east.128 The tensions between the two, it was argued, remained unresolved within the Empire founded by Bismarck in 1871. One of the most sophisticated and influential early analysts of this problem was the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen. In a study of German industrial society published in 1915 and re-issued in 1939, Veblen argued that a lopsided process of modernization had distorted German political culture. ‘Modernism’ had transformed the sphere of industrial organization, but had failed to effect ‘an equally secure and disturbing lodgement in the tissues of the body politic’. The reason for this, Veblen diagnosed, lay in the survival of an essentially pre-modern Prussian ‘territorial state’. The history of this state, he suggested, amounted to a career of more or less uninterrupted aggressive war-making. The consequence was a political culture of extreme servility, for ‘the pursuit of war, being an exercise in the following of one’s leader and execution of arbitrary orders, induces an animus of enthusiastic subservience and unquestioning obedience to authority.’ In such a system, the loyal support of popular sentiment could be maintained only by ‘unremitting habituation [and] discipline sagaciously and relentlessly directed to this end’, and ‘by a system of bureaucratic surveillance and unremitting interference in the private life of subjects’.129

Veblen’s account was light on empirical data and supporting evidence, but it was not without theoretical sophistication. It aimed not only to describe but also to explain the supposed deformations of Prussian-German political culture. It was supported, moreover, by an implicit conception of the ‘modern’ in the light of which Prussia could be deemed archaic, anachronistic, only partially modernized. It is striking how much of the substance of the ‘special path’ thesis that would rise to prominence in German historical writing of the late 1960s and 1970s is already anticipated in Veblen’s account. This was no accident – Ralf Dahrendorf, whose synoptic study Society and Democracy in Germany (1968) was one of the foundational texts of the critical school, drew heavily on the American sociologist’s work.130

Even the rather cruder accounts that passed for historical analyses of modern Germany during the Second World War often preserved a sense of historical perspective, rather than settling for generalizations about German ‘national character’. Since the seventeenth century, one writer observed in 1941, the ‘old German spirit of conquest’ had been ‘deliberately developed more and more and along the lines of that mentality which is known as “Prussianism” ’. The history of Prussia had been ‘an almost uninterrupted period of forcible expansion, under the iron rule of militarism and absolutist officialism’. Under a harsh regime of compulsory education, in which teachers were recruited from the ranks of former non-commissioned officers, the young were instilled with ‘the typical Prussian obedience’. The rigours of school life were succeeded by a prolonged period in barracks or on active military service. It was here that ‘the German mind received its last coat of varnish. Anything that had not been done by the schools was achieved in the army.’131

In the minds of many contemporaries, the link between ‘Prussianism’ and Nazism was obvious. The German émigré Edgar Stern-Rubarth described Hitler – notwithstanding the dictator’s Austrian birth – as ‘the Arch-Prussian’ and declared that ‘the whole structure of his dreamed-of Reich’ was based not only on the material achievements of the Prussian state, but ‘even more on the philosophical foundations of Prussianism’.132 In a study of German industrial planning published in 1943, Joseph Borkin, an American official who later helped to prepare the case against the giant chemicals combine I. G. Farben at Nuremberg, observed that the political evolution of the Germans had long been retarded by a ruling class of Prussian Junkers who had ‘never been unsaddled by social change’ and concluded that the Prussian ‘Weltanschauung of political and economic world hegemony is the well-spring from which both Hohenzollern imperialism and National Socialism flow’. Like many such accounts, this book drew on a tradition of German critical commentary on Prussian history and German political culture more generally.133

It would be difficult to overstate the hold of this scenario of power-lust, servility and political archaism over the imaginations of the policy-makers most concerned with Germany’s post-war fate. In a speech of December 1939, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden observed that ‘Hitler is not so unique as all that. He is merely the latest expression of the Prussian spirit of military domination.’ The Daily Telegraph published a discussion of the speech under the headline ‘Hitler’s Rule is in the Tradition of Prussian Tyranny’ and there were positive comments throughout the tabloid press.134 On the day of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Winston Churchill spoke memorably of the ‘hideous onslaught’ of the Nazi ‘war machine with its clanking, heel-clicking dandified Prussian officers’ and ‘the dull, drilled docile brutish masses of the Hun soldiers plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts’.135 In an article for the Daily Herald in November 1941, Ernest Bevin, minister of labour in Churchill’s War Cabinet, declared that German preparation for the current war had begun long before the advent of Hitler. Even if one ‘got rid of Hitler, Goering and others’, Bevin warned, the German problem would remain unsolved. ‘It was Prussian militarism, with its terrible philosophy, that had to be got rid of from Europe for all time.’136 It followed that the defeat of the Nazi regime itself would not suffice to bring the war to a satisfactory close.

In a paper presented to cabinet in the summer of 1943, Labour leader and Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee warned passionately against the notion that it might be possible, in the aftermath of the regime’s collapse, to do business with some kind of German successor government drawn from the traditional elites of German society. The ‘real aggressive element’ in German society, he argued, was the Prussian Junker class, and the chief danger lay in the possibility that this class, which had allied itself with the masters of heavy industry in Westphalia, might depose the Nazi leadership and present itself to the Allies as a successor government prepared to settle peace terms. The error of 1918 had been to allow these elements to remain as a bulwark against Bolshevism. This must not happen again. Only the ‘liquidation of the Junkers as a class’, Attlee argued, would ‘eradicate the Prussian virus’.137

For President Roosevelt too, the assumption that Prussia was historically the source of German militarism and aggression played a central role in his conception of policy vis-à-vis Germany. ‘This is one thing that I want to make perfectly clear,’ he told Congress on 17 September 1943. ‘When Hitler and the Nazis go out, the Prussian military clique must go with them. The war-breeding gangs of militarists must be rooted out of Germany [… ] if we are to have any real assurance of future peace.’138 The memory of 1918, when Woodrow Wilson had refused to parley with ‘the military masters and the monarchical autocrats of Germany’ was still vivid.139 Yet the military system that had sustained the German war effort in 1914–18 had survived the privations inflicted by the Peace of Versailles to mount a renewed campaign of conquest only two decades later. For Roosevelt (as for Attlee), it followed that the traditional Prussian military authorities were no less of a threat to peace than the Nazis. There could thus be no negotiated armistice with the military command, even in the event that the Nazi regime were to be deposed from within or to collapse. In this way, the idea of ‘Prussianism’ made an important contribution to the policy of unconditional surrender adopted by the Allies at the Casablanca conference of January 1943.140

Among the Allies, only the Soviets remained aware of the tension between Prussian tradition and the National Socialist regime. While the July plot of 1944 evoked little positive comment among western politicians, the Soviet official media found words of praise for the conspirators.141 Soviet propaganda, by contrast with that of the western powers, consistently exploited Prussian themes – the National Committee for a Free Germany, established as a propaganda vehicle in 1943 and composed of captured German officers, appealed explicitly to the memory of the Prussian reformers, above all Gneisenau, Stein and Clausewitz, all of whom had resigned their Prussian commissions during the French occupation and joined the army of the Tsar. Yorck, the man who ignored the command of his sovereign to walk across the ice to the Russians in 1812, naturally held pride of place.142

This was all eyewash, of course, yet it also reflected a specifically Russian perspective on Prussia’s history. The history of relations between the two states was no chronicle of unremitting mutual hatred. Stalin’s hero Peter the Great had been a warm admirer of the Prussia of the Great Elector, whose administrative innovations served as models for his own reforms. Russia and Prussia had cooperated closely in the partitioning of Poland and the Russian alliance was crucial to Prussia’s recovery against Napoleon after 1812. Relations remained warm after the Napoleonic Wars, when the diplomatic bond of the Holy Alliance was reinforced by the marriage of Frederick William III’s daughter Charlotte to Tsar Nicholas I. The Russians backed Austria in the dualist struggles of 1848–50, but favoured Prussia with a policy of benevolent neutrality during the war of 1866. The assistance rendered to the beleaguered Bolsheviks in 1917–18 and the close military collaboration between Reichswehr and Red Army during the Weimar years were more recent reminders of this long history of interaction and cooperation.

Yet none of this could preserve Prussia from dissolution at the hands of the victorious Allies. By the autumn of 1945, there was a consensus among the various British organs involved in the administration of occupied Germany that (in a tellingly redundant formulation) ‘this moribund corpse of Prussia’ must be ‘finally killed’.143 Its continued existence would constitute a ‘dangerous anachronism’.144 By the summer of 1946, this was a matter of firm policy for the British administration in Germany. A memorandum of 8 August 1946 by the British member of the Allied Control Authority in Berlin put the case against Prussia succinctly:

I need not point out that Prussia has been a menace to European security for the last two hundred years. The survival of the Prussian State, even if only in name, would provide a basis for any irredentist claims which the German people may later seek to put forward, would strengthen German militarist ambitions, and would encourage the revival of an authoritarian, centralised Germany which in the interests of all it is vital to prevent.145

The American and French delegations broadly supported this view; only the Soviets dragged their feet, mainly because Stalin still hoped to use Prussia as the hub of a unified Germany over which the Soviet Union might eventually be able to secure control. But by early February 1947, they too had fallen into step and the way was open for the legal termination of the Prussian state.

In the meanwhile, the extirpation of Prussia as a social milieu was already well advanced. The Central Committee of the German Communist Party in the Soviet zone of occupation announced in August 1945 that the ‘feudal estate-owners and the Junker caste’ had always been ‘the bearers of militarism and chauvinism’ (a formulation that would find its way into the text of Law No. 46 of the Allied Control Council). The removal of their ‘socio-economic power’ was thus the first and fundamental precondition for the ‘extirpation of Prussian militarism’. There followed a wave of expropriations. No account was taken of the political orientation of the owners, or of their role in resistance activity. Among those whose estates were confiscated was Ulrich-Wilhelm Count Schwerin von Schwanenfeld, who had been executed on 21 August 1944 for his role in the July conspiracy.146

These transformations took place against the background of the greatest wave of migrations in the history of German settlement in Europe. During the last months of the war, millions of Prussians fled westwards from the eastern provinces to escape the advancing Red Army. Of those who remained, some committed suicide, others were killed or died of starvation, cold or illness. Germans were expelled from East Prussia, West Prussia, eastern Pomerania and Silesia, and hundreds of thousands perished in the process. The emigrations and resettlements continued into the 1950s and 1960s. The looting or burning of the great East-Elbian houses signalled the end not only of a socio-economic elite but also of a distinctive culture and way of life. Finckenstein, with its Napoleonic memorabilia, Beynuhnen with its collection of antiques, Waldburg with its rococo library, Blumberg and Gross Wohnsdorff with their memories of the liberal ministers von Schön and von Schroetter were among the many country seats to be plundered and gutted by an enemy bent on erasing every last trace of German settlement.147 So it was that the Prussians, or at least their mid-twentieth-century descendants, came to pay a heavy price for the war of extermination that Hitler’s Germany unleashed on Eastern Europe.

The scouring of Prussia from the collective awareness of the German population began before the end of the war with a massive aerial attack on the city of Potsdam. As a heritage site with little strategic or industrial significance, Potsdam was very low on the list of Allied targets and had been spared significant bombardment during the war. Late in the evening of Saturday 14 April 1945, however, 491 planes of British Bomber Command dropped their payloads over the city, transforming it into a sea of fire. Almost half the historical buildings of the old centre were obliterated in a bombing that lasted for only half an hour. When the fires had been extinguished and the smoke had cleared, the scorched 57-metre tower of the Garrison Church stood as the dominant landmark in a cityscape of ruins. Of the fabled carillon, famous for its automated renditions of the ‘Leuthen Chorale’, there remained only a lump of metal. The scouring continued after 1945, as entire districts of the old city were cleared to make way for socialist reconstruction. The imperatives of post-war city planning were reinforced by the anti-Prussian iconoclasm of the Communist authorities.148


60. East Berlin, 1950: five years after the end of the Second World War, the upper torso and head of a fallen statue of Kaiser William I rest near a chunk of his horse

Nowhere was the rupture with the past more comprehensive than in East Prussia. The north-eastern part of the province, including Königsberg, fell to Soviet Russia as war booty. On 4 July 1946, the city was renamed Kaliningrad, after one of Stalin’s most faithful henchmen, and the sovietized district around it became the Kaliningradskaya oblast. The city had been bitterly fought over during the last months of the war and during the early post-war years it remained a lunar landscape of ruins. ‘What a city!’ one Soviet Russian visitor declared in 1951. ‘The tram leads us through the humped, narrow streets of erstwhile Königsberg. “Erstwhile” because Königsberg truly is an erstwhile city. It doesn’t exist. For kilometres in every direction, an unforgettable landscape of ruins. The old Königsberg is a dead city.’149 Most of the historical buildings in the old centre were stripped and torn down in an attempt to erase memories of its history. In some streets, only the Latin letters inscribed on the steel manhole covers of the city’s late-nineteenth-century sewerage system survived to remind the passerby of an older history. Around the devastation, a new Soviet city took shape, monotonous and provincial, cut off from the world by a military exclusion zone.


61. The capture of Königsberg by Soviet troops, 1945

In the western zones of occupation too, the work of erasure proceeded apace. French policy-makers and commentators spoke in the early postwar years of the need for wholesale ‘déprussification’.150 The bronze relief panels on the base of the Victory Column, raised in 1873 in celebration of the triumphs of Prussian arms over the Danes, the Austrians and the French in the Wars of German Unification, were removed by the French occupation authorities and shipped to Paris. They were handed back to Berlin only on the occasion of the city’s 750 thanniversary celebrations in 1986. An even more emblematic fate awaited the colossal figures representing historic rulers from the House of Hohenzollern that had once lined the Siegesallee. These objects – bombastic masses of carved white stone – were transferred by the Nazi authorities to the Grosse Sternallee, one of the axes of the future Reich capital planned by Albert Speer, Hitler’s Chief Inspector of Buildings. Here they spent the war draped in camouflage netting. In 1947, they were torn down on the orders of the Allied Control Council in Berlin. In 1954 they were secretly buried in the sandy soil of Brandenburg, almost as if this were necessary to prevent the Germans from re-grouping for battle around their ancestral Prussian totems.151


62. Workers bury the statues of Hohenzollern ancestors in the Bellevue Palace gardens, 1954

These impulses were carried over into the sphere of Allied re-education policy in the occupied zones. Here, the objective was to eliminate Prussia as a ‘mental construct’, to ‘deprussianize’ the German imagination. What exactly this would mean in practice was never agreed among the Allies or concretely defined by any of the zonal administrations, but the idea was influential none the less. Prussia was de-emphasized in the teaching of German history. In the French zone in particular, traditional textbooks charting a teleological nationalist narrative culminating in the formation of the Bismarckian Empire of 1871 made way for narratives focused on Germany’s pre-national history and its manifold ties with the rest of Europe (especially France). The chronicle of battles and diplomacy that was the staple of the old Prussocentric history made way for the study of regions and cultures. Where references to Prussia were unavoidable, they were given a markedly negative spin. In the new textbooks of the French zone, Prussia figured as a voracious, reactionary power that had thwarted the beneficent effects of the French Revolution and destroyed the roots of enlightenment and democracy in Germany. Bismarck in particular emerged from this process of re-orientation with his reputation in ruins.152 Frederick the Great, too, retreated from his privileged position in public memory, despite the best efforts of the conservative historian Gerhard Ritter to rehabilitate him as an enlightened ruler.153 Allied policies were successful precisely because they harmonized with homegrown German (especially Catholic Rhenish and South German) traditions of antipathy to Prussia.

These endeavours were reinforced, moreover, by the global geopolitical imperatives that governed German politics after the establishment of two separate states in 1949. The German Federal and the German Democratic Republics now lay on either side of the Iron Curtain that divided the capitalist and Communist worlds. While Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic, pursued a policy of unconditional commitment to the West, the Communist eastern neighbour became a political dependency of Moscow, a ‘homunculus from the Soviet test-tube’. Under the pressure of this partition, which came to seem a permanent feature of the post-war world, the Prussian past retreated to the horizons of public memory. Berlin meanwhile, islanded deep within the eastern republic, acquired a new and charismatic identity. In 1949, when the Soviets blocked supplies to the western-occupied zones of the city, the Allies broke the siege with a massive airlift. Across the western world there was a surge of solidarity with the beleaguered outpost. It was a crucial first step towards the rehabilitation of western Germany as a member of the international community. The city’s prominence was further heightened by the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, a spectacular monument to the polarities of the Cold War. In the 1960s and 1970s, West Berlin evolved into a showcase of western liberty and consumerism, a vibrant walled enclave of neon go-go bars, high culture and political ferment. It no longer belonged to Prussia, nor even to Germany, but to the western world – a condition memorably encapsulated in President John F. Kennedy’s declaration during a visit to the city on 26 June 1963 that he, too, was ‘ein Berliner’.


In a sparkling essay of 1894, the celebrated Prussian novelist Theodor Fontane, then an elderly man, recalled the occasion of his first literary composition. The reminiscence took him back six decades to the year 1833, when he had been a fourteen-year-old schoolboy lodging with an uncle in Berlin. It was a warm Sunday afternoon in August. Fontane decided to put off his school homework, a German composition ‘on a self-chosen theme’, and visit family friends in the village of Löwenbruch, some five kilometres to the south of Berlin. By three in the afternoon he had reached the Halle Gate on the city boundary. From there the road led south across the broad Teltow plateau through Kreuzberg and Tempelhof to Grossbeeren. As he reached the outskirts of Grossbeeren, Fontane sat down at the foot of a poplar tree to rest. It was nearly evening and wisps of mist hung over the newly ploughed fields. Further down the road he could make out the raised ground of the Grossbeeren cemetery and the village church tower glowing in the rays of the sinking sun.

As he sat watching this peaceful scene, Fontane fell to pondering on the events that had transpired in this very spot almost exactly twenty years before, at the height of the wars against Napoleon. It was here that General Bülow with his Prussians, most of them men of the Landwehr, had attacked the French and Saxon forces under General Oudinot, denying them access to Berlin and turning the tide of the 1813 summer campaign. Fontane had only a sketchy schoolboy knowledge of the battle, but what he remembered was enough to embellish the landscape before him with vibrant tableaux vivants from the past. Urged by his commanding officer to retreat behind the capital city and await the French advance, Bülow had refused, saying that ‘he would rather see the bones of his militiamen whiten before than behind Berlin’. To the right of where Fontane was sitting was a low hill where a windmill turned; it was here that the Prince of Hessen-Homburg, ‘like his ancestor before him at Fehrbellin’, had led a few battalions of Havelland militiamen against the French positions. Even more vivid than all of this was a story his mother had often retold from his earliest childhood, a ‘small event’ that had passed into family lore. Emilie Labry (later Fontane) was a daughter of the Francophone Huguenot colony in Berlin. On 24 August 1813, at the age of fifteen, she was among the women and girls who came out from the city to tend to the wounded still lying in the field on the morrow of the battle. The first man she happened upon was a mortally wounded Frenchman with ‘scarcely a breath left in his body’. Hearing himself addressed in his native language, he sat up ‘as if transfigured’, grasping her beaker of wine in one hand and her wrist with the other. But before he could raise the wine to his lips, he was dead. As he lay that night under his blankets in Löwenbruch, Fontane knew that he had found his theme. The topic of his school composition would be the battle of Grossbeeren.154

Was this passage about Prussia, or was it about Brandenburg? Fontane invoked a recognizably Prussian historical narrative (though only in fragments), but the immediacy of the recollection derives from the intimacy of the local setting: ploughed fields, a poplar tree, a low hill, a church tower glowing in the rays of the setting sun. It was the landscape of Brandenburg that opened the portals of memory into the Prussian past. An intense awareness of place was one of the signal features of Fontane’s work as a writer. Indeed, the walk to Grossbeeren in 1833 was the prototype – he subequently claimed – for the provincial excursion narrative he would later establish as a literary genre. Fontane is now best known for his novels – sharply observed dramas of nineteenth-century society – but his most famous and best-loved work during his lifetime was the four-volume homage to his native province known as Walks Through the Mark Brandenburg.

The Walks are a work unlike any other. Fontane made notes during a long sequence of meandering excursions across the Mark and interwove these with material drawn from inscriptions and local archives. The wandering began in the summer of 1859, with two trips to the Ruppin and Spreewald districts, and continued throughout the 1860s. Initially published as articles in various newspapers, the essays were subsequently revised, compiled by district and published from the early 1860 sas bound volumes. Readers encountered an unfamiliar mix of topographical observations, inscriptions, inventories and architectural sketches, romantic episodes from the past and scraps of unofficial memory gleaned from conversations with cab-drivers, inn-keepers, landowners, servants, village mayors and agricultural labourers. Passages of blank descriptive prose and wry vignettes of small-town life are interspersed with meditative scenes – a graveyard, a still lake enclosed by frowning trees, a ruined wall drowning in grass, children running in the stubble of a freshly mown field. Nostalgia and melancholy, those markers of modern literary sensibility, pervade the whole. Fontane’s Brandenburg is a memoryscape that shimmers between past and present.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Walks is their emphatically provincial focus. There seemed to many contemporaries, as Fontane well knew, something preposterous about devoting four volumes of historical travelogue to prosaic, featureless, backwoods Brandenburg. But he knew what he was doing. ‘Even in the sand of the Mark,’ he told a friend in 1863, ‘the springs of life have flowed and still flow everywhere and every square foot of ground has its story and is telling it, too – but one has to be willing to listen to these often quiet voices.’155 His aim was not to survey the grand récit of Prussian history, but to ‘re-animate locality’, as he put it in a letter of October 1861.156 In order to do this he had to work against the grain, uncovering the ‘hidden beauties’ of his native country, teasing out the nuances of its understated topography, gradually pulling Brandenburg from under the political identity of Prussia. The Mark had to be detached from Prussia’s history in order to appear in its individuality.157 Prussian history is present in the Walks, but it seems remote, like the rumour of a distant battlefield. It is the Brandenburgers, with their peppery wit and the spare cadences of their speech, who have the last word.

The Walks did not escape the strictures of historical pedants, but they were hugely popular with the broader public and have been widely imitated since. Their success draws our attention to the abiding strength of provincial attachments in the Prussian lands. Prussia remained, at the end of its life as in the beginning, a composite of provinces whose identity was substantially independent of their membership within the Prussian polity. This was most obviously the case for the more recently acquired provinces. The relationship between the Rhine province and Berlin remained a ‘marriage of convenience’, despite the relatively pragmatic and flexible governance of successive Prussian administrations.158 In Westphalia, which was not, strictly speaking, a single historical entity but a jigsaw of culturally diverse lands, the later nineteenth century witnessed an intensified sense of regional belonging, heightened by confessional polarities. In Catholic areas of Westphalia such as the bishopric of Paderborn there was little enthusiasm for Prussia’s war against France in 1870; volunteers were thin on the ground and many conscripts fled to Holland to avoid service.159It is thus misleading to speak of the ‘assimilation’ of the Rhineland provinces after 1815; what happened was rather that the western territories joined the Prussian amalgam, forcing the state to constitute itself anew. Paradoxically (and not only in the Rhineland), the introduction of Prussian governance, with its provincial presidencies and provincial diets, actually reinforced the sense of a distinctive provincial identity.160

These effects were intensified by Prussia’s territorial expansion in the aftermath of the Austrian war. Many in the conquered provinces resented the high-handed annexations of 1866. The problem was particularly pronounced in Hanover, where the ancient dynasty of the Guelphs was deposed and its landed wealth sequestered by the Bismarck administration, an act of robbery and lèse-majesté that stuck in many conservative throats.161 These concerns found expression in the German-Hanoverian Party, which advocated a Guelph restoration, but also pursued broader conservative-regionalist objectives. Guelphist Hanoverians might eventually become enthusiastic Germans, but they would never become wholeheartedly Prussian. To be sure, the Guelph regionalists were opposed within Hanover by the province’s powerful National Liberal movement, which strongly supported the new Bismarckian state. But the National Liberals, as their name suggests, were enthusiasts of Germany, rather than of Prussia. They hailed Bismarck as the instrument of a German, rather than a specifically Prussian, mission.

Prussia’s last great phase of expansion happened to coincide with an intensification of regionalist sentiment across Germany. Archaeological and historical associations run by local worthies dedicated themselves to laying bare the linguistic, cultural and political history of the many German ‘landscapes’. In Schleswig-Holstein, this trend was intensified by the Prussian annexation of 1866. There was a burgeoning of regionalist loyalties, not only among the Danish-speaking ‘Prussians’ of north Schleswig, who remained unreconciled to the new order and seceded when they had the chance in 1919, but also among those ethnic Germans who were attached to the idea of Schleswig-Holstein as an autonomous state. Most of the deputies who represented the duchies in the constituent Reichstag of the North German Confederation in 1867 were supporters of regional autonomy. These aspirations acquired a certain academic credibility by the efforts of the Schleswig-Holstein-Lauenburg Society for Patriotic History, whose lectures and publications emphasized regionalist themes.162

The point should not be overstated. Regionalist sentiments posed no direct threat to Prussian authority. The Schleswig-Holsteiners may have grumbled, but they continued to pay their taxes and perform their military service. Yet the strength of provincial identities is significant. Their importance lay less in their subversive political potential than in the synergies that could develop between regional and national attachments. The folksy modern ideology of Heimat (homeland) blended seamlessly into cultural or ethnic concepts of a composite German nationhood, bypassing the imposed, supposedly inorganic structures of the Prussian state.163 Prussia, as an identity, was thus eroded simultaneously from above (by nationalism) and below (by the regionalist revival). Only in the Mark Brandenburg (and to a lesser extent in Pomerania) did a regionalist identity evolve that fed directly into an allegiance to Prussia and its German mission (though not necessarily to Berlin, which some saw as an alien urban growth on the agrarian landscape of the Mark).

Yet even here, as the example of Fontane suggests, the rediscovery of the province and its claims on the sentiments of its inhabitants could entail a turning away from Prussia. Fontane, often regarded as an apologist for ‘Prussiandom’, was in fact deeply ambivalent towards the Prussian state and could on occasion be fiercely critical.164‘Prussia was a lie,’ he declared in the opening sentence of a scathing essay he published during the revolutions of 1848. ‘The Prussia of today has no history.’165 Fontane was among those who argued – not only in 1848 but also after the foundation of the Second Empire in 1871 – that the unification of Germany must necessarily bring about the demise of Prussia.166 It went without saying that the Brandenburg whose particular history and character he had so painstakingly documented would survive the demolition of the monarchical state that had sprung up on its soil.

The strength of provincial attachments and the corresponding feebleness of Prussia as a locus of collective identity has remained one of the most striking features of the state’s afterlife since 1947. It is remarkable, for example, how inconspicuous Prussia has been in the official rhetoric of the organizations formed in West Germany after the Second World War to represent the interests of the 10 million expellees who were forced to leave the East-Elbian provinces at the end of the Second World War. The refugees defined themselves, by and large, not as Prussians, but as East Prussians, Upper or Lower Silesians, Pomeranians; there were also organizations representing the Masurians from the Polish-speaking southern districts of East Prussia, the Salzburgers of Prussian Lithuania (descendants of the communities of Protestant refugees from Salzburg who were resettled to the Prussian east in the early 1730s) and various other sub-regional groups. But there has been little evidence of a shared ‘Prussian’ identity and surprisingly little collaboration and exchange between the different groups. In this sense the expellee movement has tended to reflect the composite, highly regionalized character of the old Prussian state.

To be sure, Prussia was the subject of great public interest in both the post-war Germanies. The official historians of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) soon abandoned the leftist anti-Prussianism of the older Communist cadres and adopted the military reformers of the Napoleonic era as the fathers of the new paramilitary People’s Police founded in 1952. In 1953, the authorities used the occasion of the 140th anniversary of the wars against Napoleon to launch a propaganda campaign in which the events of 1813 were reframed to serve the interests of the Communist polity. The theme of ‘Russo-German friendship’ naturally loomed large and 1813 now figured as a ‘people’s uprising’ against tyranny and monarchy.167 The creation of the prestigious Order of Scharnhorst in 1966 for operatives of the National People’s Army, television serials on Scharnhorst and Clausewitz in the late 1970s, the appearance of Ingrid Mittenzwei’s pathbreaking bestseller Frederick II of Prussia in 1979 and the relocation of Christian Daniel Rauch’s splendid equestrian statue of the king to a prominent position on Unter den Linden were just some of the milestones in the evolution of an increasingly sympathetic and differentiated approach to the history of the Prussian state. The aim – at least of the state authorities – was to deepen the public identity of the GDR by annexing to it a version of the history and traditions of Prussia. It was partly in answer to these developments that the authorities in West Berlin and their backers in the Federal Republic supported the immense Prussia exhibition that opened in West Berlin’s Gropius Building in 1981. And yet, for all the controversy and genuine public interest on both sides of the German – German border, these remained top-down initiatives, driven by the imperatives of ‘political education’ and ‘social paedagogy’. They were about the identities of states, not of the people who live in them.

But while the emotional resonance of Prussia has faded, attachments to Brandenburg remain strong. After 1945, the GDR authorities made a concerted effort to erase the regional identities that pre-existed the socialist state. The five Länder in the eastern zone (including Brandenburg) were abolished in 1952 and replaced with fourteen completely new ‘districts’ (Bezirke). The aim was not merely to expedite the centralization of the East German administration, but also ‘to create new popular allegiances’, to supersede the traditional regional identifications with ‘new, socialist identities’.168 Yet the extirpation of regional identities proved extraordinarily difficult. Regional fairs, music, cuisine and literary cultures flourished, despite the ambivalence and intermittent hostility of the central administration. Official efforts to encourage emotional attachments to the newly minted ‘socialist homelands’ of the 1952 districts generated only superficial acknowledgement from the majority of East Germans.

How hardy the traditional affiliations were became clear in 1990, when the districts were abandoned and the old Länder reinstated. The county of Perleberg in the Prignitz to the north-east of Berlin had been part of the Mark Brandenburg since the fourteenth century. In 1952, it was enlarged to encompass three Mecklenburg villages and incorporated into the district of Schwerin (a name traditionally associated not with Brandenburg, but with its northern neighbour, the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin). In 1990, after forty years in Mecklenburg exile, the people of the county of Perleberg took the opportunity to assert their attachment to Brandenburg. Seventy-eight point five per cent of Perleberg voters opted to return and the county was duly transferred to Brandenburg administration. This caused consternation, however, among the inhabitants of the Mecklenburg villages that had been merged into Perleberg county in 1952. The men and women of Dambeck and Brunow loudly demanded a retransfer to their ancestral Mecklenburg. Late in 1991, after protests and negotiations, their wish was granted. Now everybody was happy. Everybody, that is, except the people of Klüss, population c.150, whose village was officially attached to Brunow but actually lay right on the old border with Brandenburg. Since the eighteenth century, Klüss had depended for its livelihood upon cross-border transactions (including a lucrative smuggling trade), and its residents were reluctant to cut their traditional ties with the Mark.169

In the end, there was only Brandenburg.

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