An Unfinished Note: The Vexed Question of Prussia in World History... II

The proclamation of William I as German Emperor in the Hall of Stock Photo 61637437 Alamy

Reading Adam Tooze's powerpoints for his _War in Germany, 1618-1648 course, and thinking about the Vexed Question of Prussia in World History...

For a bit over the first half of the Long 20th Century global history was profoundly shaped by the peculiarity of Prussia. The standard account of this peculiarity—this sonderweg, sundered way, separate Prussian path—has traditionally seen it has having four aspects. Prussia—and the "small German" national state of which it was the nucleus—managed to simultaneously, over 1865-1945:

  1. wage individual military campaigns with extraordinary success: in campaigns it should have won it conquered quickly and overwhelmingly; in campaigns it should have narrowly lost it won decisively; in campaigns it should have lost it turned them into long destructive abattoirs.

  2. wage wars no sane statesman would have entered and—unless its first quick victories were immediately sealed by a political agreement—lose them catastrophically via total neglect of grand-strategical and strategical considerations, and a failure to take anything other than the shortest view of logistics.

  3. via the role, authority and interests of the military-service nobility societal caste, divert the currents of political development from the expected Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, French, Belgian, Dutch, Swiss, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish path of growing political and social democracy into a separate channel, a sonderweg, of authoritarian rule at home in the short-run material interest of a business-landlord-service nobility class and caste, and of desired conquest and demographic expansion in the European "near abroad".

  4. engage in continent-spanning systematic patterns and campaigns of terror, destruction, murder, and genocide that went far beyond anything other European powers engaged in within Europe, and even went far beyond the brutalities of colonial conquest and rule that European powers engaged in outside the continent.

Did Prussia—and the "small German" national state of which it became the core—in fact follow a separate and unusual path with respect to economic, political, cultural, social development relative to other western European national states in the arc from France to Sweden? Do these four aspects as components rightly summarize the sonderweg? What is their origin, and what is the relation between them?

This is the vexed question of Prussia...


The first thing to note is that Prussian operational excellence–winning campaigns it ought to have lost, and winning decisively and overwhelmingly campaigns it ought to have narrowly won–did not exist before 1866 and the Prussian victory at Königgrätz in the Austro Prussian war. In 1864 the Prussian army did not cover itself with glory in the short Austro-Prussian war against Denmark. In 1815 the Prussian army had the distinction of losing the last two battles anybody ever lost to Napoleon: the battles of Ligny and Wavre. Also in 1815, staff confusion in arranging the order of march and the consequent delayed arrival of Prussian forces at Waterloo turned the Duke of Wellington's victory from a walk in the park into a damned near-run thing and a bloody mess.

In the rest of the Napoleonic and French Revolutionary wars, the performance of the Prussian army was: competent but undistinguished in 1813-4, the most disastrous in history in 1806, less than competent from 1792-5.

You have to go back to 1762 and the wars of Friedrich II Hohenzollern (the Great) to see any evidence of operational excellence, or, indeed, more than bare competence.

Looking backward we can see Friedrich II as the culmination of a line of military-political development through Friedrich Willem and Friedrich I back to Friedrich Willem ("the Great Elector"). But there appears to be a century-long near-hiatus in anything that could be called a distinctive Prussian military-political-sociological pattern in the society as a whole, outside of the military, the bureaucracy, and their service nobility, which continued their Friedrichian traditions to some extent...

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