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Review: H. W. Koch, A History of Prussia

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One of the nice things about reading this edition of Koch's history of Prussia is its spectacular red, yellow, and black dust jacket. Vivid, straightforward, and distinctly Prussian, the jacket is happily everything a history of Prussia ought to be. Koch's history is, to a non-specialist, a good example of what a national history should be; covering the nearly 800 years from the origins of Prussia in the order of the Teutonic Knights to the creation of a single imperial Germany under the Prussian dynasty, Koch addresses political, social, and cultural aspects of Prussia's existence (in approximately that priority).

Since it is pointless to recap the very history covered in a review of a history, as readers either have some familiarity with the subject and would therefore gain nothing, or are unfamiliar and have no context for the recap, I'll restrict myself to commenting on some themes that struck me in reading Koch.

First, statism. Certainly by the end of A History of Prussia one is aware of how much Prussia's identity was shaped by the State's conviction of self-sufficiency and duty. The rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty and its advisors, led a state oriented to, fundamentally, its own survival and freedom of action. (Not a unique goal, but it stands out to me.) The militarism and absolutism which are associated with the name of Prussia have their origins here; the organization of Prussia's economy, political structures, and military come under rather central control by the Great Elector's descendants. This control and power is directed, it seems to me, mostly toward ensuring the Hohenzollern fortunes and strengthening Prussia. As early as the first 'King in Prussia', works were commissioned which "laid the foundations for the secular theory of enlightened absolute monarchy according to which the prince has only one duty: governing for the welfare of his subjects." (Koch, p. 70) This absolutism could be seen in the recurring impulse toward reform which punctuates Prussian history.

Second, the 19th-century nexus of liberalism, Marxism, and Bismarck. Perhaps if I'd paid more atttention in Barclay's 19th-century course, I'd be less struck by the interactions that Koch narrates, but there you are. Bismarck, though not a monarch himself, acted precisely in accordance with the monarchical statism so characteristic of Prussian rulers. The stability and security of the state were his overarching goal, and social upheaval threatened those twin goals (as did the machinations of France, Austria, and occasionally other European powers, of course). Koch describes Bismarck's interest as a socially harmonious society, as opposed to as class struggle (p. 274). "The forces of revolution could not be met by the principle of laissez faire, nor by general repression, but rather by recognizing the practical and real issues underlying them and at the same time giving qualified support to the upholders of the social and political status quo. This policy produced some very odd results." (p. 274-5) Bismarck's Prussia developed a policy of both state socialism and state capitalism; reforms from above incorporated liberal ideas, and blunted the edge of industrial-proletarian revolution in one of Europe's most rapidly industrializing nations. In a country where the state directly controlled a large share of the means of production, Marx's theory failed to explain the course of events, or to foment socialist revolution in Germany, precisely where Marxism should have been most applicable.

Lastly, the Prussian militarist tradition. Koch is rather insistent on clarity with respect to this issue. Toward the end of the History, he remarks: "This of course raises the question as to why Prussian citizens, German citizens, should have acquiesced in a compromise between freedom and power. Prussian militarism, teutonic aggressiveness, represent fillers in the cracks that show the lack of a valid explanation." (p. 281) The supposition of a racial character which is monotone and timeless has a certain irony when applied to German history, no? While it's quite clear that much of Prussia's history and development is a result of judicious (and injudicious!) application of military prowess, this is not unique even in Europe. Koch's final chapter discusses the legacy of the Prussian name and inheritance, adding to the history some interpretation which fulfills his remarks in the Preface:

There is no point in trying to disguise the fact that in its own way this history of Prussia is 'revisionist' in its approach. But it should never be the task of the historian to tread the well-trodden footsteps of the past seven decades, to do no more than touch up old cliches, themselves the product of feverish and sometimes rightly embittered minds. On the other hand little purpose would be served by replacing unsound opinions and judgements by their distorted opposites. The task this author has set himself is to look at Prussia's history in its own terms and context, rejecting outright the approach which views German history and that of Prussia within it against the background of the Wilhelmine era, or even that of the atrocities of the Third Reich.
By following closely the course of events and the forces shaping Prussia, Koch succeeds, giving the reader a much clearer sense of what the Prussian legacy actually is. I found that the association of Prussia with a certain type of militarism is certainly not accidental, nor is the history unblemished, but the connection between the strength of the Prussian state and its military merits reflection.

The History of Prussia is a well-written, thought-provoking history. A clean text with a nice bibliography and decent index, it covers the development of a world power neatly in under 300 pages, while not omitting overmuch, and not skimping on description of important factors at every stage. Especially considering it's available on the cheap as a Barnes and Noble reprint, anyone interested in European history, the modern state, or German heritage should pick up and read Koch's history.

H. W. Koch, A History of Prussia (Longman, 1978 (reprint by Barnes and Noble, 1993)). ISBN 0-88029-158-3

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