For example, it was Prussia that led Germany as a whole out of the catastrophe of the Thirty Years’ War and gave it its unforeseen cultural heyday. Whereas Austria and the southwestern states long persisted in a counterreformation that had become sterile, Prussia reformed its internal structure in an exemplary manner. Torture, religious intolerance, pogroms against Jews – all of that was first abolished or outlawed in Prussia, long before it was in the rest of Germany. The victories of the Prussian kings created new pride and possibilities for identification with the nation. The universities in Halle and Königsberg offered refuge not only to scholars expelled from Catholic states, but also to those who had to flee Saxony’s Protestant orthodoxy.
None of the major German intellectual schools would have even been possible without direct Prussian influence. Johann Joachim Winckelmann was a Prussian who created the new classicism. Romanticism emerged in Berlin and in “Prussianized” Jena. Classical German philosophy was almost the exclusive province of Prussian universities. Military reform (August von Gneisenau, Carl von Clausewitz), education reform (Wilhelm von Humboldt), new architecture (Johann Gottfried Schadow, Karl Friedrich Schinkel), new theology (Friedrich Schleiermacher), the revival of East and Southeast European national spirit (Johann Gottfried Herder) – Prussian sons and Prussian ideals, wherever one looks.
One can spend a long time debating whether the disastrous strains in German history that were becoming apparent in the late nineteenth century were in fact a consequence of “Prussianization” or perhaps more likely a result of Prussia’s being pushed back and absorbed into the German Empire, an odd “revenge for Sadowa.”* It is a fact that even the declared enemies of Brandenburg repeatedly benefited from the Prussian spirit. Without the existence of Prussia, social democracy would never have had a glacis upon which to become so strong. And foreign socialists attested often enough to social democracy’s Prussian discipline and Prussian, Kantian ethos. With all their polemics, the free-thinkers and radicals knew that they were protected by the rule of law, which was held in particularly high esteem in Prussia.
This should also be given particular emphasis when commemorating Prussia in both German states: Prussia was one of the first constitutional states [Rechtsstaaten] in Europe, furnished with an exemplary teaching tradition under constitutional law and a parliamentarianism that was in no way inferior to the contemporary French parliamentary system. Anyone who blindly rages against Junkerdom and “Prussian militarism” is not even getting at half of the truth. The influence of the Junkers and generals in Prussia never reached the same level as in Russia, or even in Austria-Hungary, primarily because of the idea of law, for which this state had already spoken out very early on in its history.
It did preserve the principles of corporative estates to a greater extent than France or England and with them a number of primary loyalties that liberalism was not able to dissolve. In retrospect, however, that proves more of an advantage today than a notorious example of “feudalism.” Prussia can thus become a model for those seeking an intermediate path between the excesses of permissiveness and despotism.
* Battle of Sadowa: Prussian victory over Austria in July 1866, ending the Seven Weeks’ War and confirming Prussian hegemony over the German states – trans.
Source: Günter Zehm, „Auf der Suche nach Preußen“ [“In Search of Prussia”], Die Welt, October 21, 1978.
Translation: Allison Brown