Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Iron Kingdom

Out of weakness comes strength. Out of strength, weakness.

Not necessarily now, but eventually ... sometimes very eventually. But history is in many events the story of the unraveling of unresolved contradictions, and those that come from the weakness/strength dialectic have a particular ferocity.

Prussia arose in weakness ... underendowed in natural resources, central to its enemies, remote from natural allies, surrounded by great empires yearning to undermine each other. Prussia had the good fortune to have a sequence of great kings ... well electors and kings ... the Great Elector Frederick William, Frederick I, Frederick William I, Frederick the Great. They managed to consolidate a power that entered the great power system of Europe and remained a force in Europe until 1945.

What happened? We know how it turned out. Why did it end so badly? That is one of the enduring questions of European history. Even as Europe rose to dominate the planet and to impose its terms of civilization worldwide, it could not solve the fundamental undermining contradictions of its political life until it had consumed the entire world in the two most monstrous man-made catastrophes of history.

So let's start with a list of figures:

1648 • 1763 • 1806 • 1870 • 1918

weak • strong • weak • strong • weak

1648: The 30 Years Wars, one of the most cynical in history until WW I took the prize, in which sundry armies slaughtered and raped their way across what is now Germany for, yes, three decades. The weakness of division and merely being barely alive

But then Prussia had those four great kings, and they ended by securing their place in the power system of Europe with Frederick's great victory in 1763 by way of not losing the Seven Years War ... which many refer to as the real first world war. The strength of surviving with a state that would outlast the absolutisms that threatened it

Frederick was followed by the first in a long line of Hohenzollern imbeciles on the throne, and they ended up being humiliated by Napoleon in 1806 at Jena and Auerstadt. So weak again.

But that weakness on the throne found its complement in the strength of Bismarck who led Prussia/Germany to a series of victories in three wars from 1863-1870. It is not an accident that the crowning moment of this strength was the elevation of Wilhelm I as Kaiser happened at Versailles in France.

Wilhelm's successor, the huffing and puffing bombast Wilhelm II, Kaiser Bill, presided over the suicide of empire that also ended in France, in a railway car, in 1918. Weak again.

SO I have been obsessed with revisiting these questions for several months now, reading first Christopher Clark's delicious Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, followed by the magisterial Hajo Holborn's A History of Modern Germany, and most recently a re-reading of the iconic Liddell Hart's History of the First World War, not so much because I want to depress myself ... the careful reader of recent posts will realize that I did that all on my only ... but because I wanted to keep Germany on my mind long enough to get this post out. So, start again with Clark on page 431, speaking generally but referring to the period after the fall of Napoleon ...

The one institution that all Prussians had in common was the state. It is no coincidence that this period witnessed an unprecedented discursive escalation around the idea of the state. Its majesty resonated more compellingly than ever before ...

Frederick famously saw himself not as monarch but as the first servant of the state ... and given that it was he who put the finishing touches on the construction of the notion of Prussianness as nation, we can say that Prussia was born not of ethnicity but of an idea, the idea of the state as organizing principle superior to all other organizing principles. It is worth noting that those of us ... and we are legion ... raised on the neo-marxisms of the 70s, and the crypto-hegelian detours of one kind or another that were so fleetingly popular in the milieu, owe to Frederick much of the way that we still think in our skeptical if comfortable post-post-marxism.

Clark had earlier referred to Prussianness as "a curiously abstract and fragmented sense of identity." But the Prussianness that rocked the world in the early 19th century (which started in 1815) was more noted for its romanticism and art than for its military prowess which took a long back seat notwithstanding all the posturing and strutting around. So even as Prussianness rose from the ashes of 1806 to become the core of the unified German nation by way of the defeat of the French in 1870, it reproduced in its national definition the unresolvable contradiction between authority and creativity, between the regimentation of the military model and the liberty of free thinkers and artists. This was not, of course, only Prussia ... it was all of Europe with the curious exception of Britain, I would argue. But in Prussia the unresolvable nature of the contradiction found its most enduring and explosive form.

The strength of this contradiction was between two social weaknesses ... the Junker class whose material underpinning, that is land and authority over peasants, was drip-drip-dripping away, and the bourgeoisie who whorishly and repeatedly caved to every foot-stomping fit of the Junker class and their representative fawning at the side of a series of feeble monarchs. It was through the gap between these two forces of fulminating weakness that the personal project of Bismarck found its opening.

The state delivered to Bismarck in 1862 was bursting with its sense of mission, derived from the enthusiasms of these wounded social classes, a sense that endured in one form or another for almost a century. That sense of mission itself derived form the long Prussian dialectic of strength deriving from weakness, and the frustration of that sense of mission combined with the weakness/strength dialectic to become one of the driving forces in European history.

The Prussians figured, "hey, why not us?" Why don't we have colonies, why don't we have a navy, why can't we dominate? France was a shadow of itself, Austria a gaunt spectre, and Russia a vast misery which imposed its will by itself seemingly endless willingness to suffer and die. Prussia and later Germany was exploding with creative and industrial energy, and the commmonplaces of Europe which still reproduced the power system that emerged from the Seven Years War, still hamstrung by the indelible shadows of the ancien regime, found no place for this energy.

Europe made no place, and Germany could not make itself modern, and eventually it blew up in everyone's face.

Accident in history: why was Germany saddled with that incomparable blowhard, Wilhelm I. He fired Bismarck in 1890 because he figured he knew better. Bismarck had made Germany, had secured its strength, and sought by his policies to maintain his creation. His weak-minded successors botched the job.

Liddell Hart, the incomparable historian of war ... and let me note as a sidebar that one terrible failure of liberalism is its failure to understand the absolute necessity of studying military history ... notes that the 18th-century (i.e., through 1815) had great generalship, but the 19th-century (i.e., through 1918) was saddled with pompous, self-satisfied morons, and it was they who brought down the apocalypse. So here was Germany, flush with is false consciousness of mission and its industrial virility, but led by the representatives of its weakest most historically transcended, and then there was France and England, bound to defend a commonplace of order in Europe that bore no relation to the development of forces. I still rage at the madness of rulershiop that allowed WW I. The depth of the catastrophe is difficult to fathom, the more so by reason either of accepting the heroic myths or because of the terrible ignorance of history that is the stock-in-trade of modern consumerism.

And so to today. Are we not i the grip of a decades old unresolved contradiction between our preening strength and the weakness of the national institutions that underlie it? Is our national sense of mission not a fraud invented by a self-satisfaction that looks only at ourselves? Are we not overdue, in the sense of historical counting, for a comeuppance?

Imagine being born in Germany in 1870. A life in the strong Germany, the rising Germany, where every year saw growth and creation, where an empire seemed finally to find itself after centuries of pointless, almost inexplicable division. As the new year dawned in 1914 ... you are 44 now and life is sweet and pleasant, the cafes full, the arts alluring ... notwithstanding the seemingly eternal international tensions, could you have imagined the horrors that would be unleashed before another new year?

I do not blame Germany for 1914. I blame all the rulers for the madness, but it is not Germany's alone. All were operating on the same principles by explicit agreement with each other. No, ther is no blame to assign. The history of Europe in the 20th century was born of the failure of the 19th century to move on from what it inherited.

History demanded a price. Never forget the price it demanded. That is the lesson of Prussian.

I'll try for some photos tomorrow ... anyone who made it this far gets an Iron Cross.

1 comment:

David U'Prichard said...

Very interesting perspectives Arod. I am half Scot/half Prussian (cf. I. Kant!), immigrant to US 37 yr ago, residing in Philly 25 yrs. i ordered "Iron Kingdom" earlier today, having reading two great books on Europen cultural/political history 1648-1825 by Tim Blanning (The Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions that Made Modern Europe: 1648-1815; The culture of power and the power of culture: old regime Europe 1660-1789). I'm a product of 1945, married to a NYC Jewish girl, and still trying to figure it all out. Please read Sebald "Austerlitz", if you haven't already. cheers!