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Age of Realism

Prussian Militarism

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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Germany was a powerful empire in 800, when Charlemagne took the crown, and again in 962 when Otto the Great became emperor. However, from a unitary state that came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire (968 A.D.), rivalry between the feudal warlords caused a constant fragmentation of the area. By the time of Martin Luther (1517), there were well over 300 states, some small (like Hesse-Cassel), some large (like Bavaria, Saxony, Brandenburg).

During the 16th century, at about the time of Luther, the German Emperor was embarking upon a campaign to regain the lost states. Ultimately successive emperors would try to subdue the independent warlords in much the same way as the French kings would do in France. The German warlords would therefore grasp at any straw which would save them from such domination.

Martin Luther provided such a straw. The German warlords grasped his rebellion against the Catholic Church to highlight their own struggle against the Emperor. Ultimately a series of so-called Religious Wars would be fought, culminating in the final destruction of the German Empire. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) would guarantee that Germany would remain fragmented for another 200 years.

Westphalia would also ensure that the German Empire was an entity only in name. The Holy Roman Empire would no longer exist in any practical terms. Instead, the Emperor would concentrate his attention on his home domain, namely Austria. Politically and economically, therefore, Germany was disunited. Tariff barriers netted up both land and rivers. There was no monetary standard, the lower Rhenish circle alone having over 60 mints.

In the meantime, one of the larger states in north-east Germany, namely Prussia, would begin a period of rapid expansion. Originally the Mark of Brandenburg, a German buffer state against the Slavs, the territory was gradually added to. Great expansion occurred in 1618 when the Hohenzollern prince inherited East Prussia.

Until the time of Frederick William, who inherited the throne during the 30 Years War, Brandenburg-Prussia was ravaged by friend and foe alike. As a result, the King decided to build up an adequate army to protect his territories. By the end of his reign, the army numbered some 27 000 soldiers and Brandenburg-Prussia was second only to Austria as the strongest power in Germany.

Frederick III (1688-1713) lacked statesmanship and talent for rigid economy and, as a result, Brandenburg-Prussia slowly regressed. In 1700, however, during the war of the Spanish Succession, he lent aid to Austria on condition that he be recognised as King. His wish was granted and he become known simply as King in Prussia. He quickly changed the title, however, to become known as Frederick I, King of Prussia.

Frederick William I (1713-1740) who succeeded him was both eccentric and uncouth. Nevertheless, he worked with great energy and continued to centralize the Prussian state, encouraging commerce and industry. He kept a strict control over the economy and increased the army to 83 000 men, which made it the fourth largest in Europe. The army was in fact not used during his life-time but went into operation during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) during the reign of Frederick the Great.

This war was quickly followed by the Seven Years War (1856-1873). During this time Prussia found herself up against all her enemies in one great alliance: Austria, France, Russia, Sweden, and Saxony. Their express purpose was to dismember Prussia to cut her down to size.

It is to Prussia's credit that she withstood the multiple attack and the war ended in a virtual stale-mate. The Treaty of Hubertusburg restored Europe to the pre-war situation which meant that Prussia remained virtually intact. Although Prussia had made no territorial advances during the war, she did however make substantial political gains, most notably in terms of political and military prestige. The state was now recognised as one of the Big Five in Europe.

During the 19th century, Prussia would be able to dispute with Austria for the control of leadership in Germany itself. By 1863 had become the dominant nation in central Europe. By 1871 was the centre of a new German Empire.


It is possible that Prussian militarism was founded on the ancestral leaders, the Teutonic Knights. The territory of Prussia had been colonized during the High Middle Ages (about the 13th century) by Teutonic Knights who had been sent in by the German Emperor to put down unrest on the eastern borders of his Empire. As rulers of that territory, they established a reputation of ruthlessness.

The Teutonic Knights, having conquered the traditional Prussian nobility, thereupon turned them into serfs (akin to slaves). The Teutonic Knights, in the meantime, established themselves as a new, although alien, ruling class. Even though fairly small in number, they were not absorbed by the Prussian people but rather tended to absorb the Prussians into their military culture. The Prussian language was forbidden in speech between ruler and peasants with the result that German slowly became the official language of the region.

The quality of the land probably also went a long way to developing the military character of the people. Prussia was a barren land with a harsh climate. This caused the evolution of a dour people, austere and lacking in emotionalism and artistic awareness. The Renaissance, for instance, completely passed them by. With the passing of time, moreover, the ruling Teutonic class lost its ties with the rest of Germany so that, by the 15th century they had only the German language in common with the rest of Germany.

During the 30 Years War, Prussia was overrun by invading armies so that it became necessary to build up a strong army for defensive purposes. The militaristic philosophy remained long after it was no longer necessary.

It was in any case the day of small armies. Great distances to be crossed on foot meant that large and unwieldy armies made little sense and created large logistical problems. Armies were therefore fairly small, or at least operated in small units. It was therefore possible for a small state to have a powerful and efficient army.

Prussia was unique in that it had far more troops in proportion to the total population than countries such as France, Austria and Russia. It also developed a philosophy as well as a political and economic foundation which was high militaristic. Almost its entire state budget was ear-marked for military expense, even when there was no warfare.

In the days of Frederick, the Great Elector, all his personal taxation was devoted to maintenance of the army, even though Prussia never went to war during his rule. He also lived a most frugal life, avoiding the lavish expenditure of the other European rulers, most notably Louis XIV.

Furthermore, the army consisted almost solely of the landed aristocracy, the Junkers. In fact, army and Junkers became practically synonymous, with no place in the military for any other group of people, such as the bourgeoisie. So much were the Junkers identified with the army that most members of the Junker families wore military uniform as standard everyday dress.

A sense of service to the king and state was seen as the supreme human virtue. It was this that forged national unity out of the amalgam of its population. Stress was therefore laid on duty, obedience, service and sacrifice.

The Junkers gave absolute service to the king in return for absolute authority over the serfs. Serfdom in Prussia sank lower than almost anywhere else in Europe, where the peasant had almost no rights and was severely oppressed.

Furthermore, the class structure was virtually frozen. It was almost impossible for a serf to move up into the Middle Class. It was equally impossible for the small band of bourgeoisie to move into the aristocracy by means of buying landed property which the Junkers, in any case, were forbidden to sell.

There was also little by way of wealth in Prussia. Most of the bourgeoisie were government officials. The merchants made most of their money by supplying food, clothing and weapons to the army. The economy was therefore almost entirely military centred, and the military was entirely Junker centred.


The years of Napoleonic rule in south Germany had seen re-organisation and domestic reform. These ideas permeated into Prussia as well but were not really accepted in the echelons of power which remained autocratic. The result was an intellectual ferment which moved in various directions.

Up until the 18th century the intellectuals were generally happy to accept the status quo. After the French Revolution, however, the new ideas emanating from France set the intellectuals off in a different direction. Two essential political philosophies took root: nationalism and democracy. Socialism would begin to emerge also in the cities to the west, particularly as the industrial revolution spread during the early 19th century.

The chief problem, however, lay in the fact that the philosophies were seldom isolated. It was not a case that one person was a nationalist, another a democrat, another a socialist. All ideas were absorbed together, but in different proportions and dilutions.

This was not a problem for a country like France (which was already a unit) or Italy (which could become a unit). The German Confederation was different. In the first place it contained states like Austria and Prussia which had substantial minority groups. It also contained two states (namely Austria and Prussia) which would almost certainly compete with each other if one united Germany were created.

Metternich perceived this when he hosted the Congress of Vienna in 1815. He realised that it was crucially important to maintain a loose federation in Germany which neither encouraged nationalism nor allowed Prussia to compete against Austria. For the following two decades he also attempted to ensure that reformist policies were suppressed.

In one sense the Congress of Vienna did Germany and Europe a disservice. Prussia, by a centuries-old tradition of the Teutonic Knighthood, looked eastward for expansion. The smaller German states to the west were not attractive. Indeed, because they had been ruled by Napoleon, they had become centres for "modern" ideas like liberalism, socialism and democracy. These were the very "vices" which the Prussian aristocracy held as anathema.

The Congress of Vienna, however, changed all that. In order to create a strong buffer state against further French aggression, the territory of West Prussia was formed. This forced the Prussians to look westward and the desire began to emerge to consolidate Prussian territory across northern Germany.

In essence it caused Prussia to desire expansion into Germany. Note the subtle difference between this desire and that of the German nationalists who wished for a unification of the German people. Unification was a cultural and philosophical stance, while expansion of Prussia into Germany was a militaristic one.

On the other hand, economic development became noticeable during the years between 1815 and 1850. In 1818 a customs union or Zollverein was established to eradicate oppressive tariff barriers which divided the German provinces. By 1834 the whole of Germany, except Austria and some of the smaller states, had joined.

The Zollverein, together with rapid industrialisation based on Germany's natural resources of coal and iron, gave the Prussian economy a strong boost and laid the foundations for later German unity. Moreover, the domination of Prussia over the Zollverein laid the foundation for Prussian political hegemony. It thereby also increasingly weakened Austria's hold on Germany.

By 1852 economic resources, industrial development and the financial position in many of the German states were strong. Extensive railways made Germany capable of using its mineral resources and extending its industrialisation. Moreover, because of its advanced industrial strength based on coal and iron reserves in West Prussia (the Saar Basin especially), Prussia was capable of developing its railway system as well as manufacturing superior instruments of war.

The Zollverein had therefore given Germany an economic unity which became the foundation of a political unity. There was a strong demand for further free trade, a unified system of coinage and a unified legal system. These demands, supported by the powerful Prussian economic structure, made Prussian nationalism a potent force by the 1860s.

Although eventual unification was brought about by a combination of diplomacy and warfare, the achievement could never have been so rapid if it had not been for the powerful Prussian economy. German unity, said the British economist Keynes, was not built on Bismarck's dictum of "blood and iron" but more likely on Prussia's "coal and iron".

The accession to the Prussian throne of Frederick William IV in 1840 encouraged the liberal minded to press for liberal reforms. They had failed to realise, however, that although the king was willing to make some liberal reforms, he was not prepared to initiate a constitutional monarchy. He sought rather the recreation of the German or Holy Roman Empire but one centred on Berlin rather than Vienna.

The revolutionaries in their midst also failed to take note of Prussian militarism and the sheer strength of the Prussian army. When rioting broke out in Berlin in 1848 and the news of Metternich's flight from Austria caused the king to make constitutional concessions, the Prussian military leaders held firm in the rest of Prussia.

In September 1848, therefore, with the news of the success of Austria's crushing of the revolutions there, Frederick William's hand was strengthened and his army quickly put down the up-rising in Berlin.

In the rest of Germany the liberal leaders made use of the uncertainty in Prussia and Austria to set up their Vorparliament in Frankfurt Its aim was to draft a constitution for the whole of Germany. It failed, however, because its representatives simply could not agree on objectives.

Ultimate success or failure hinged on the question of German nationalism. There were those who wanted a united Greater Germany which would include Austria but exclude those non-German sectors of Austria. There were those who wanted a Lesser Germany which would omit Austria altogether. Since both views contained major political implications, and since the Vorparliament was essentially without teeth, it all eventually broke down.

Yet King Frederick William offered an alternative to the Vorparliament, namely the creation of a union of any German states which wished to join Prussia. Many states took advantage of the offer. A constitution was drawn up, elections held and a Parliament was established but at the critical moment, the King bowed to opposition from Austria and abandoned the idea. At Olmutz in 1851, the old Confederation of the Rhine was revived and Austria was again the dominant power in Germany.

Most states in Germany looked to the powerful Austria in the south for leadership. Already, in 1848, the Germans had realised the difficulty of uniting Germany because of the presence of Austria. When Bismarck aimed at Prussian domination of northern Germany, his aim was the exclusion of Austria. Such a policy, however, could only mean war because Austria would not willingly be excluded or allow herself to play second fiddle.


Although it seemed that the Olmutz agreement had put the clock back to 1815, this was not quite so. The Prussian King did not tear up his constitution but left the state with a parliamentary system which was seen as a first step to greater things in the future. Austria was not quite what it was before because Metternich had gone and his place was taken by Prince Schwarzenberg.

The new Prussian constitution provided for monarchical sovereignty but with a legislature consisting of two houses. The Lower House was an elected assembly, based on universal adult suffrage split along class lines. The male population was divided into three groups, with the upper group receiving four votes to the one of the lower group.

Parliament was, however, a toothless dog. It could debate but not control. Nevertheless, it suited the Prussian liberals who wished to see an evolutionary system of government, and not revolutionary chaos as had happened in France. They saw themselves as advisers to the King. In the future they would gain more, little by little.

Parliament, however, was also deeply divided. There were 352 deputies. By 1862, when Otto von Bismarck became Chancellor, the government could only count on the support of about 11 conservatives. Then there was the Catholic Centre Party and the Polish deputies (totalling about 56) who tended to be neutral. To the left of these were the Liberals, numbering about 80% of the deputies.

The Liberals themselves, however, were split. There were left-wing Liberals, centrist Liberals and right-wing Liberals. Even the Progressive Party, easily the largest German party at the time, was split down the middle. In short, an astute politician like Bismarck could manipulate them for his own purposes.

The Schwarzenberg system also spelt a difference. While Metternich was intent on maintaining a weak Confederation which would not lead to a Prussian challenge for leadership, Schwarzenberg saw things differently. He wanted his government to actively challenge Prussia. This would quickly change Prussia's view of Austria.

When Bismarck appeared on the scene as Prussia's delegate at the Confederal Diet in 1851, he was essentially a staunch supporter of the Old Order. He accepted that Austria would remain supreme in Germany. Quickly his attitude changed, however, when he saw Schwarzenberg's antagonistic posture. Soon thereafter Bismarck took up the challenge and was advising his government on the need to expand into Germany.


Some words about Bismarck. He was born in 1815 of a wealthy Junker estate and was brought up in Berlin in contact with the court of the Hohenzollerns. In 1847 he was a member of the Prussian Diet at Berlin and showed himself a total reactionary, but also a Prussian nationalist.

He served for a time as Foreign Minister to Russia in St Petersburg. While there, he won the friendship and respect of the Tsar, a situation he would be able to utilise later to good effect in his wars against Austria and France. He became Chancellor of Prussia in 1862.

That Bismarck was a Junker was important for he espoused Junker tradition and philosophy. He did not believe fundamentally in German unity but in an expanded Prussia which would ultimately dwarf Austria as the powerhouse of the region. That could not be achieved by means of a democratic and parliamentary decision but only by victories on the battlefield. He was at heart, therefore, a Prussian militarist.

One may probably safely describe Bismarck as a ruthless politician and a believer in Realpolitik. It would not be safe, however, to claim that he had a plan for the unification of Germany which he put it into action bit by bit. Such a claim comes from Bismarck himself, in his old age, when he was attempting to be remembered as the greatest statesman Germany had ever produced.

What has become clearer with recent research is that Bismarck believed in the flow of history. History, according Bismarck, is like a great river, with rapids and waterfalls. The state is like a boat floating on that river. As such, it must always flow with the drift of the water. It is, however, the task of the astute statesman to guide the state down the better and safer channels.

What is important, said Bismarck, is NOT to attempt to change the course of history, which is impossible, but to GUIDE the state in that course. To be successful, the good statesman must always keep his options open. He must also have several options open to him at all times, several irons in the fire, so as to choose the best option only when it becomes obvious that it is the best option.

The Schleswig-Holstein question was such an option. It was not a case of war with Austria, as Bismarck claimed. It was merely an option of enhanced Prussian dominance in that region of northern Germany. There were several reasons for Bismarck desiring to go to war in alliance with Austria against Denmark.

First, it would be a testing point for the strength of the Prussian army. Furthermore, Prussia could not hope to fight Denmark alone without the threat of Austrian interference. To fight as an ally of Austria, on the other hand, would mean that when the war was over, the peace settlement could be used as another possible option to gain further hegemony in the region.

Because Bismarck saw in the Schleswig-Holstein question a possibility for war with Austria, he therefore set about isolating the latter state. He already had Russian support because of the moral backing Prussia had given to Russia during the Polish uprising of 1863. He gained the support of Italy in return for the promise of Venetia in the event of an Austrian defeat. He gained a promise of neutrality from Louis Napoleon by offering France territorial compensation in the event of a victory over Austria.

The ensuing war lasted only seven weeks and Austria was defeated. Prussia had mobilised quickly, had superior armaments and good railways with which to rush troops to the frontier. The alliance with Italy forced Austria to fight on two fronts. Austria, on the other hand, had been completely isolated and could look nowhere for support.

Bismarck nevertheless was anxious that the war did not escalate into a major European confrontation because of the upset of the balance of power. He was determined to bring the war to an end as quickly as possible and therefore could not allow the humiliation of Austria. Besides which, he did not want Austria to regard Germany as her permanent enemy.

He also feared a future war with France, and needed Austria's neutrality in that. The Treaty of Prague, signed with Austria in August 1866, was therefore extremely lenient. He had, after all, gained what he had wanted: the expulsion of Austria from German affairs.

Napoleon III had totally underestimated the power of the Prussian army. Instead of the war lasting for several years, as he had expected, it was over in only seven weeks. Napoleon realised his mistake only when it was too late. By failing to help Austria, he had also succeeded in alienating both Austria and his own Catholic population, as well as helping to create a powerful and almost unified Germany on his own doorstep.

He had to gain something from the war so as to restore some of his lost prestige. He therefore demanded his territorial compensation. Bismarck manipulated his demands into a cause of war, knowing that France would be totally isolated.

The German forces proved far superior to the French, who were badly commanded and armed with inferior weaponry, and the war was quickly over. By September 1870 Napoleon III surrendered to the German army. In Paris a revolution proclaimed another republic (3rd Republic) and continued the war under siege until January 1871.

As a consequence of the war, German unification was completed since the South German Confederation chose to become united with the north during the war. An empire was now proclaimed with William I as Emperor (2nd Reich). Louis Napoleon, on the other hand, had the anguish of losing his empire in the midst of revolution and humiliation.

David Thomson makes the point that the annexation of the French territories of Alsace and Lorraine were not part of Bismarck's original scheme for the unification of Germany. Bismarck was a nationalist, albeit a Prussian one. The majority of the population in these two provinces were French and they would therefore be an embarrassing minority within the German Reich.

He nevertheless succumbed to pressure from his military generals who wanted the provinces for strategic purposes. Acceptance of their advice was possibly the greatest error which Bismarck made in his distinguished career.

The annexation ensured that the German government would have to support a policy of strict alliances if it wished to maintain French isolation. That would be fine in the short term for a diplomat of Bismarck's capacity. What, however, would happen if a lesser mortal were in control of the German state?

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