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Posted on Jul 23, 2009 in Books and Movies

Iron Kingdom – Book Review

By Nick Kaminsky

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947. Christopher Clark. Harvard University Press, 2006. Softbound, 776 pages. 62 illustrations, 14 maps. $19.95.

As well written as it was researched, Iron Kingdom will be enjoyable and informative to both the casual historian and the dedicated scholar.

During the Seven Years War, an adjutant to Prussia’s Fredrick II made the famous remark that “the Prussian monarchy is not a country which has an army, but an army which has a country.”

It is this Sparta-like, war-making image that floods most modern minds when they think about Prussia. That is of course, unless those minds have absorbed the pages of Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947. In this impressive work, Clark shows that there was much more to Prussia than solid lines of sharply dressed marching men.

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It should immediately be noted that Clark is no historical revisionist. He makes no claims that Prussia was, in reality, a pacifist state or that the Kaisers preferred raising bunnies to reviewing their troops. Though he does point out that the peace movement of the late 19th century developed much more quickly in Germany than anywhere else, Clark does not try to hide the fact that Prussia became a highly militaristic state. But as the reader will discover, a militaristic state does not necessarily mean a militaristic society, and the ideals valued by broader Prussian society often conflicted with those of the state.

Beginning and ending with the territory of Brandenburg, Iron Kingdom traces, as its title promises, the rise and downfall of Prussia throughout the history of Germany, all the while considering what it meant to be Prussian in a land that was united politically rather than culturally.

From humble beginnings under the Electors, Prussia worked its way up the path to greatness, a path often filled with danger. Having narrowly survived the Thirty Years War by much treacherous alliance changing, Prussia’s international reputation was boosted when its elector Fredrick III crowned himself with the peculiar title, “King in Prussia.” The nation’s troubles were hardly overcome by this great event, and Prussia continued along the perilous road of history, coming dangerously close to political annihilation several times, especially during the Napoleonic Wars.

Having played an instrumental role in the defeat of Napoleon, Prussia once again increased her status in the world when her king was declared German Emperor. Just as before, however, this grand state of affairs was not to last. Social upheaval, revolution, and war plagued the nation, bringing about the abdication of the Kaiser, the rise and fall of the Weimar Republic, and ultimately the rise of the Nazis and their fanciful obsession with a mythical view of Prussian history.

It was not only the Nazis who justified their actions with recourse to Prussia’s past deeds. The German resistance called upon it with just as much confidence. As Clark notes, “Precisely because it had become so abstract, so etiolated, was Prussiandom up for grabs. It was not an identity, nor even a memory. It had become a catalog of disembodied, mythical attributes whose historical and ethical significance was, and would remain, in contention."

This contention remains even today, though it is fully possible that Clark’s remarkable work may well help straighten it out.

Iron Kingdom is rather light on the specific details of troop movements and battles, a fact which may make it less exciting to hard-core military historians, but which also makes it more readable for the rest of us. Special emphasis is placed on politics and the underlying philosophies, most notably those of the Enlightenment.

It would be helpful for readers of Iron Kingdom to have at least some previous knowledge of German and broader European history, as Clark often explores Prussia’s role in international events but, understandably, does not go into great detail about those events. Though the book has several good maps, a basic understanding of German geography would also be immensely helpful.

As well written as it was researched, Iron Kingdom will be enjoyable and informative to both the casual historian and the dedicated scholar. No one who reads it will again be able to think of Prussia as nothing more than “an army which has a country."

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