Prussian efficiency, right? That’s usually what people invoke when it comes to the popular conception of what is undoubtedly Germany’s most significant state. In a quirky way, Prussia is to Germany what Germany, stereotypically speaking, is to the rest of the world: a small but focused political entity that prides itself on hyperefficiency and, for most of its history, an advanced sense of militarism, discipline, and administrative absolutism. This is, after all, the land of the goose-step, Carl von Clausewitz’s imperishable treatise On War, and — before we forget — those mustache-twirling, brass-buttoned Junkers.
But Prussia, as much as we would like to think of it as a monolith, played more than just the role of military strongman. No, famous rulers like Frederick the Great inherited and propagated a fantastic line of non-military Prussian innovations. They were the Prutenic Tables, the Kammergericht, the Berlin Enlightenment, the University of Königsberg breaking ground in Protestant scholarship and, believe it or not, a far greater number of influential women than you might expect. Want to learn more about Prussia? Indulge your appetite for a well-done history and read Christopher Clark’s masterwork Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947.
And — as you churn through the religious wars of the Holy Roman Empire, the Seven Years’ War, and the formative military defeats and victories experienced by Prusia in the Napoleonic Wars — it’ll probably become clear that the real hot spot of Prussian history happens in the late 19th century, when Otto von Bismarck is at the helm and the state’s militarism, comparatively speaking across Europe, is probably at its finest. Well, that didn’t last forever, and the schemes of that era erected by the many absolutist rulers running empires to the east of the Rhine did not last either. There was a brief period of time when the League of the Three Emperors — also known as the “Three Caesar’s Alliance”— between Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary looked like an impenetrable wall of absolutism set to maintain its conservative order of power in the East of Europe for a hundred years.
That didn’t happen, at least not while Russians saw a sympathetic cause in liberating the Slav populations in the Balkans under Habsburg rule. (Not that there were not any other number of other new, nascent forces besides fervent nationalism that were emerging at the tail end of the 19th century which would have disrupted Bismarck’s ideal balance of power, cough cough, socialism). Fall of Eagles, an epic 13-part British television series from the 1970’s which chronicles the gradual collapse of the dynasties ruling Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia from 1848 until the end of World War I. In case you missed your 19th century flag test in high school, the royal crests of all those countries feature very prominent eagles. The amount of history to unravel here is staggering, but that is a plus, not a negative, when the show is a fantastically well put together piece of television.
With that, we should finally add in our historical tidbit: it was on this day in 1871 that Otto von Bismarck, probably the most successful product of the Junker class to ever live, was appointed first Chancellor of Germany. Without Bismarck, there’s no telling how long it would have taken for Germany to have reached unification before the Cold War split it apart again. There’s also no telling whether anyone would have hung onto the phrase realpolitik without this ultra-quotable statesman. We will leave you with a favorite from Prussia’s finest chancellor: “A statesman . . . must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of His garment.” Prussia may be famous for its efficiency, but if the kingdom never had a statesman as gifted as Bismarck who knew how to tap into the momentum of his era, well, we probably would have never found out just how effective that efficiency could be.