Prussian and German Militarism

In the last issue of the Gathouse Gazette I concerned myself with German and Prussian militarism and the current lack of the same.

I have since received a letter of welcome but rather harsh criticism. Mr. Brackley, the letter’s author has kindly agreed to my defending of my position on this blog.

Be warned, it is rather lengthy, I also want to thank my wife, who is far more versed in pre-19th century history than I am, for her invaluable input.

I am writing to express my disappointment with Marcus Rauchfuss’ article German Militarism and the Current Lack Thereof in the May 2010 issue. While it is by no means a badly written article I cannot accept that a discussion, or even in this case, an introduction to German 19th & 20th century militarism could be passed for publication without speaking about Prussia. Mr. Rauchfuss does provide an end disclaimer that the short essay offered is by no means intended to be complete but this does not remedy an opening paragraph so glaring in its selective omissions as to torpedo the author’s credibility from the very start. The author suggests that the German states were no more militarist than other European nations prior to the reign of Wilhelm II. This is patent nonsense and demonstrably false.

Defining militarism

Militarism is the exertion of disproportionate and exaggerated influence on all strata of society and on politics by the military forces of a state, thus leading to an adoption of military forms by previously unrelated elements. Militarism may cilminate in political rulers becoming indistuingishable, if not identical, with military leaders. This definition demands the presence of a military, defined itself as a body of armed forces that has unified organisation and structure, including a clear chain of command and a clear hierarchy, and which is distinctly recognisable. Lasting influence can only be achieved by the constant presence of a body to exert such influence, hence another requirement for the existence of militarism is the existence of a standing army.
Only states with a standing army that follows a chain of command with the head of state at the top qualify for generating militarism. At the time at which this essay looks, the following political entities (among others) fulfill both the criteria of having a head of state and a standing army under said head’s control: France, Great Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia. These are the power players of the era. Following the wake of the French Revolution, the rulers of Russia, Austria and Prussia relied heavily on their military forces to safeguard against any future uprising. The enfollowing enmeshment of the ruling nobility and the military, visible in the noble rank of most officers in all three armies, paved the way not only for Prussian, but also for Austrian and Russian militarism. So, Prussia indeed already has a militarist tradition at time when Wilhelm II comes to power. So has Russia, and so has Austria. And all three also share a tradition of using soldiers against their own population.

The only way this interpretation could possibly work is if 1) One considers that all German states and Principalities pre-1871 were somehow equal in influence and historical experience and 2) One completely ignores Prussia’s role before and after German unification in 1871.

Concerning the German states and Principalities pre-1871, what later became the German states was still the medieval Holy Roman Empire as late as 1806, when several of its members allied with Napoleon Bonaparte during his conquests, in return for territorial grants and increased status within the French realm. This group of German rulers and their territories, the Rheinbund (Rhenish League) grew to include the majority of all German members of the HRE, with the notable exclusion of Hesse-Kassel, Brunswick, Austria and Prussia. This signified the end of the Holy Roman Empire, and neither Austria, the most powerful member, nor Prussia was able to prevent this, which indicates that the members of the later Rheinbund were indeed quite powerful and independent. The term ‚historical experience‘ is one unfamiliar to continental historians, but it can be argued that in terms of experience gained throughout the course of history, the great and shaping events of the Reformation, the Thirty Years War, and the wars between Spain, Habsburg, the Netherlands and France all generated enough fallout to ensure a roughly equal measure of ‚experience‘ at least concerning the German states.

Prussian leadership?

Prussia was a powerful, but not the dominant state at the beginning of the 19th century. After the defeat of Napoleon, the rulers of Austria, Russia, Prussia, Britain and France convened in Vienna, at the Vienna Congress, to consolidate their individual rulerships and divide the territories that had been formerly conquered by Napoleon.
For the German territories, the solution was the „Deutsche Bundesakte“ passed 1815, June 8th. This established a lose federation of German territories each under individual absolutist rule, which each sent an emissary to the so-called „Bundestag“, a non-legislative representative body of the federation presided over by Austria. If there is any question to which political body dominated the post-Napoleonic era in the German territories, it was not Prussia, but Austria under Emperor Francis I. This view is further supported by examination of the treaty called the „Holy Alliance“ between the rulers of Austria, Russia and Prussia (1815, Sep 26th), vowing mutual aid and cooperation, specifically in case of any rebellions. The Prussian king here acts as an Austrian ally, not as a rival for domination of the German states, and as a minor ally at that.
The only sector where Prussian influence exceeded that of Austria, is that of economic influence among it’s immediate neighbours. To facilitate trade and rebuild after the war against Napoleon, Prussia abolished several tolls and became part of a system of toll unions that culminated in the Prussian and Hessian toll union of 1828. When the southern equivalent fused with this entity, the result was the Deutscher Zollverein (German toll union) of 1834, a large free trade zone. This was indeed dominated by Prussia, which was larger and had more population than the other members (since Austria did not join and why should the Austro-Hungarian empire have?) and more industry. However, Prussia and all the members of this free trade zone were still part of the German confederation under Austrian leadership. That economic influence does not equal political influence becomes apparent looking at the war between Prussia and Austria in 1866, where the members of the Zollverein supported not the economically influential Prussia, but the politically influential Austria. No way did Prussia ’set the tone to which the other kingdoms marched‘ as said below. Even those territitories (by no means were they all kingdoms) with close economic ties to Prussia were able to oppose Prussia on a political level. And last but not least, through personal union, German Hanover was part of Great Britain, which could have led to interesting developments had Britain antagonised the Austro-Hungarian empire (or vice versa).

Prussia, who from the late 17th century onward was so militarised that Voltaire once famously said „Where some states have an army, the Prussian Army has a state! “ Prussia, who 20th century military historian W.H. Koch called “the New Sparta”. Prussia, the driving force behind German unification, who set the tone to which the other Kingdoms marched, who dominated the confederation of German states, is nowhere to be found in this examination of German militarism.

As said before, a standing army is prerequisite to becoming militarist. A standing army was indeed established in Prussia in the late 17th century, by the Elector of Brandenburg, who ruled the duchy of Prussia from 1640 to 1688. His army was formed from mercenary forces present in the duchy, a consequence of the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648). Considering the times, this was not a devious bid for dominance by a single ruler, but can be viewed as the decision of a man who wanted to protect his realm from invasion. Prussia did not rise to any military significance, however, before the 1740s, under Frederick the Great. And by the time of Napoleon, the Prussian army was again outdated and easily defeated. 1815 finds the Prussian king Frederick William III a stout ally of the Austrian Empire, a much more powerful entity. The „New Sparta“ envisioned by W.H. Koch was a then a thing of the future, if indeed the Prussian constitutional monarchy that became a large factor in German politics after 1861 ever even remotely qualified for the comparison below the level of tagline.

German unification – a Prussian thing?

Prussia was also not the driving force behind German unification. The signing of the Holy Alliance, intended to curb any national movement because these movements were modeled on the French Revolution, is proof of the Prussian monarch’s distaste of the idea. Prussia was content to remain an absolute state among other absolute states.
The move for a unified Germany was originally a cause embraced by followers of Napoleon Bonaparte, who brought the French constitution and French liberal laws to the territories he conquered. When the Congress of Vienna attempted to erase the Napoleonic era, the common people were understandably loath to let go of some of the French ideas, notably that of a constitution that curbed the rights and privileges of absolute monarchs. In Germany, as early as 1817, massive protests ocurred, and social unrest followed by brutal reactions from the rulers and heavy censorship laws became a determining factor of social and political life in the German states. German rulers, not only in Prussia, came to rely heavily on their military to keep them in power. Under such circumstances, political rulership becomes identical with command of the military. Militarism can be seen as the direct result. Dictatorships worldwide offer ample example for further study of the phenomenon. Again, Prussia does not follow an indivudual militarist path, but rather strives to follow the Austrian example as shall be seen in the following:
Under influence of other national liberal movements, notably in Greece and France, the German revolution culminated in 1848 with the declaration of human rights by a national assembly in the church of St Paul’s in Frankfurt (Main). It must be remembered at this point that the German confederation is led by Austria, not by Prussia. The parliament in St Paul’s was adressing the Austrian emperor, not the king of Prussia. The goals of this parliament were to establish a constitutional monarchy, and the biggest issue was not Prussian dominance, but whether or not to include all of the multinational Austro-Hungarian empire in a potential German national state.
The Austrian emperor in 1848 was the newly crowned Franz-Joseph I. The German revolution of 1848 affected the entire German confederation, of course, which included Vienna, and so the Austrian emperor had to deal with it as well. Austria adopted a constitution in 1848 that while granting some civil rights to the populace largely secured the role of the emperor as supreme figure. Presiding over the German confederation, Austria also sought to apply a form of this constitution to the German confederation. This would have replaced the previous form of representation by a board of ruling princes and monarchs headed by a governeur acting for the emperor. This position was to alternate between Austria and Prussia, the two most powerful German factions. The St Paul parliament had a very different idea of the future, and under pressure decided to go for the „small option“ of German unification, offering the German imperial crown to the Prussian king. Frederick William IV refused. He could have become emperor of all German states with the exception of Austria without raising so much as a finger, and he declined. So much for Prussia being the driving force behind German unification. Indeed, Frederick William IV attempted to put a bloody end to the revolution in Berlin, however the atrocities committed by the royal army threatened to cause an even greater escalation as the people of Berlin took to the streets en masse, forcing Frederick William IV to negotiate. Prussia adopted a constitution in 1850, which, like the Austrian constitution, contained a few liberal elements – such as establishing a parliament and general elections – but which served to secure the position of the monarchy. The same year saw Russia, Austria and Prussia sign a treaty that re-established the German confederation as it was in 1806. Obviously, German unification was not on the agenda of the Prussian king. And while indeed being the home of the later German emperor, during the era pre 1871, Prussia was neither a militarist super power, nor a bully state. Its policies do not differ from the policies of other German states, including the use of military force to control the population, and indeed can be said to mirror Austrian politics.
If German unification became part of the Prussian agenda, it was not until 1866. Frederick William IV had died in 1861, after a long period of illness, and was succeeded by his brother William. Prince William was a military man, not surprising in the younger brother of a king, and as king, he set about to reform the Prussian military. The reason for doing so was to address organisational faults that had become apparent during Prussia’s involvement in the Austro-Italian war of 1859, as an ally to Austria. William I’s military reform was met with severe resistance in parliament, as control of the army would have been even more closely exercised by the king and the nobility. So, even if the king is a militarist, his subjects apparently do not share his enthusiasm! In 1863, Otto von Bismarck was appointed prime minister of Prussia, and he is held largely to be a key figure in the process of German unification. Prime minister Bismarck’s diplomatic successes are well known. Prussia enjoyed good relations with Russia and Italy, a former enemy, whereas the relationship with Austria soured. In 1866 things escalated into armed conflict. Interestingly, the members of the free trade zone of which Prussia was the biggest and most powerful member, did not side with Prussia. They sided with Austria, the nominal head of the German confederation. Prussia, however, won the war. The peace treaty signed with Austria in 1867 effectively abolished the German confederation, and much of northern Germany became the Norddeutscher Bund under Prussian leadership. This is when Prussia can be said to begin to take a dominant role in German politics. Roughly fifty years before the outbreak of World War I, not since the late 17th century.
In 1870, on July 9th, war broke out between France and this confederation of German states, which on December 10th, 1870 changed its name to Deutsches Reich. It has been argued that this war was instigated by prime minister Bismarck who was following a policy of actively increasing Prussian power. On January 1st, 1871, the four southern German states of Badenia, Bavaria, Württemberg and Hessen-Darmstadt joined the Prussian-led political union seeking protection from their French neighbour. On January 18th, 1871 William I, king of Prussia, was declared William I, German emperor, in Versailles. The war with France ended on May 5th.

The problem is further compounded by placing the blame for German militarism squarely on the epaulette-encrusted shoulders of Wilhelm II. Here the “Great Man” theory of history is strained to the limit of credibility by asking the reader to accept that rather than being guided by the currents of centuries of established Prussian culture, Wilhelm, easily influenced, neurotic, insecure, Wilhelm was instead guiding them and the rest of the nation with it.

There are no centuries of previous Prussian militarism. Prussia did not enter the European power game until the 1860s, with the rule of king William I with Bismarck as prime minister as of 1863. William has been portrayed often as being insecure, easily influenced and neurotic, but a closer examination of his rule reveals a rather independent thinker with a strong will. Notably, he deposed „iron chancellor“ Bismarck after only two years in office. Historians in the past have found it difficult to believe that a sufferer of polio could have been such a strong ruler, although there have been notable cases of disabled rulers before. The vision of William as weak and therefore easily influenced because he did not have the use of one arm and hand has only been challenged by a more modern approach among scholars. William was also a very popular ruler, evident in the shared enthusiasm people in Germany had for the navy fleet, the fashion, and the marketing of products such as the mouth water Odol as „The emperor’s favourite“. His decision to go to war was definitely backed by the German nation. For more on the „Great Man“ theory of history, see below.

Germans from regions with local identities far more prominent that any overriding idea of “German” nation-hood (always somewhat lacking) are thus reduced to passive followers of the ruler’s whims. The reader is asked to believe this, in a nation where the largest party in parliament were the Socialists.

As said before, the people in Germany were largely in support of William and of the war. As for the idea of German nationhood, people had been figthing for a German national state since 1817. The German Reich as of 1871 was seen by many as being the embodiment of that state. The largest party in parliament in 1912, at the eve of the war, were in fact not the Socialists, but the Social Democrats and the Zentrum, a Christian conservative party. The Social democrats held only about one quarter of all the seats in parliament, however. No less than seven different parties and political blocks were present in parliament, the majority being conservative and national.

At least two centuries of Prussian martial culture created and enabled Wilhelm II’s militaristic pose, not the other way around.

There weren’t any two centuries of Prussian martial culture that deserve special mention. Prussia was an ally to the powerful Austrian Empire for much of the 19th century, and only rose to greater power after 1861. William II deserves credit for being the ruler he was, even if that does not exactly cast a favourable light on him.

The name of Prussia is only mentioned in Mr. Rauchfuss’ essay by 1920, and then in passing reference to Kapp. Far too little, far too late. This is ultimately on the level of other reductionist readings of history where the origins of the Holocaust are entirely situated in the person of Adolf Hitler, ignoring the depth of central European anti-Semitic currents that existed throughout the 19th century of which Hitler was but an end product. The suggestion that a zeitgeist does not exist or have historical roots until a charismatic “Great (Bad) Man” comes by and brings it into being is simply bad history of the calibre peddled on cable television.

Modern times have largely done away with the ability of „Great Men“ to influence the course of history. Times when the majority of the people had no voice and no power, and could be forced, sometimes brutally, to do as their ruler pleased, indeed provide many examples of so-called „Great Men“ determining the fate of thousands. William II was not a „Great Man“ in the same sense, as say, Alexander the Great, Caius Julius Caesar, Octavius Augustus, Bernard de Clairvaux, or Napoleon Bonaparte… a parliament was in place to check what he did, and he had to rule according to the law. But, the laws were those of a constitutional monarchy, and that parliament was the parliament of a constitutional monarchy, not that of a democracy. It did not have the power to halt or stop a war, nor could it force the emperor to abdicate. All it could do was beg to differ on important issues, and use the only lever it had – granting or not granting the annual budget, and hope that the emperor would not revert to the times of his grandfather and have them all shot. Democracy and equal rights have seen the end of the „Great Men“, but at the time of William II the „Great Men“, a.k.a. people in power who have the power to do as they please, were still a reality. To deny the power of a sovereign monarch over his people is to deny the achievements of our modern democratic constitutions, as well as turning a blind eye to the harsh reality of past centuries, where what we now call tyranny was the norm.

To offer another side of the same coin is the case of the state (variously a Principality, Electorate and Duchy) of Hesse. Since the 18th century, Hesse was the go-to place to hire mercenaries.

The term „Hesse“ applies to several quite distinct political entities, the only one of whom famous for its mercenaries is the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel. It was never an Electorate, nor a duchy. It was a poor region that lived by selling the only thing it had in abundance: people. When Great Britain hired mercenaries who were referred to as „Hessians“ for deploy against the Americans in the 18th century, the Landgrafs of Hesse-Kassel had already been in business for over a century. The troops that went from Hesse-Kassel to fight in America were the personal regiments of the Landgraf of Hesse-Kassel, and it was their lord who signed the contract with Britain, and who received the pay. This is not a case of Britain hiring mercenaries, but of Britain entering into business relations with the Landgraf of Hesse-Kassel, who owned these men. Literally. Hesse-Kassel had held on to its mecenaries after the Thirty Years War, indeed a parallel to Prussia, but unlike Prussia was unable to support its troops. The solution was to hire them out to whoever wanted them, which became the main source of income for the Landgraviate. This is a case of a ruler supporting himself and his territory financially by becoming a professional broker for mercenaries. To become a militarist state, the standing army must exert a disproportionate influence within the territory itself, as demonstrated at the beginning, and it must become synonymous with power within the territory. Prussia or Austria using the military against their own people who would otherwise drive the absolute monarchs out is a clear example of such an enmeshment. The ruler of Hesse-Kassel could actually comfortably allow a large portion of his forces outside his realm without endangering his position, it seems. He would also not lead his mercenaries personally to America, but instead retained the position of a broker. The situation of Hesse-Kassel and its Hessians is more comparable to that of Swiss mercenaries in the 16th century, also highly in demand especially by the Papal State, not so much to that of the Prussian Royal Army.

Thousands of which gained a fearsome reputation with friend and foe alike during the American revolution. This is not to suggest that the rulers or subjects of Hesse were peculiarly martial, but that rather that the state was poor and, like the similarly impoverished state of Switzerland, took to exporting its one abundant commodity; unemployed young men of military age, pre-packaged in ready-made regiments.

Exactly. The rulers of Hesse-Kassel, as did many others at the time, viewed people as goods to export for a profit. But they were not militarists, they were the proprietors of what today would be Blackwater Inc.

While it is admittedly outside of the essay’s scope to focus on the plights of the many disparate states that were pressed together to make the German nation,

As outlined above, the German nation state was not the result of ‚many disparate states‘ being ‚pressed together to make the German nation‘, but rather the result of a national liberal movement the roots of which go back to the French Revolution, the influence of the revolution in France in 1830, and the wars in Greek and Italy, which led to the evolution of the Greek and Italian nation states. The demand for a constitition that would grant the people civil rights, as well as the demand for true democracy and a government elected by the people was a continental European phenomenon, which, when all else failed, was taken advantage of by the ruling classes to secure their position as rulers of the new nation state. Absolute monarchies transformed into constitutional monarchies, which then joined into the new union under Prussia. Some of them, like Westphalia, were annexed during the war of 1866 against Austria, true, but this was not the general rule.

the case of Hesse demonstrates a facet of militarism present in a pre-unification German state, and one that perhaps made decidedly militaristic Prussia leadership more acceptable.

A Landgraf who rents armed men does not make a militarist state. Even if his men are organised in regiments, have a fearsome reputation and are easily recognised. If the Landgraf had taken a military title, now, and if rulership had passed from the ruling family to the leader of a very successful Hessian regiment who relied on force of arms to remain in power… that would be another story. But the Landgraviate Hesse-Kassel even disappeared from the map in 1806 (annexed by Westphalia) and re-appeared as the Electorate Hesse-Kassel in 1813. This politically comparatively powerless territory could not have paved the way for Prussian leadership. Which did not evolve before 1866 with the end of the war against Austria.

I admit I much more enjoyed the later sections of the essay in theirexamination of current contradictory attitudes of modern-day Germans to thing martial. To span 100+ years in a short article is a daunting task, I largely take issue of how many, and what steps were skipped to get to the genuinely insightful parts.

So, I guess this could be the start of a debate. But before you join, please mind the „Code of Conduct“-Badge in the top right corner.


3 Responses to Prussian and German Militarism

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  3. I suppose no particular social and/or political group or State should be stuck with such a mantle of first in militarism, as homo sapien’s inclination to cannabalism seems prevalent and exsistent for all human times. Reading the European wars , from the fall of Rome to WW1, ther’s plenty of barbarity to go around. To blame the Germanic tribes for genocidal behavior, reduces ; historical reduction: the blame of all other participants is missed, rationalized. Certainly, the French gave to quarter to its enemies… And in the New World, the Iroquois … well you get the picture.