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What Became of the Prussian Army?

ISSUE:  Winter 1941

Of all the delusions of the pre-Blitzkrieg era none seems stranger today than the firm belief of the democracies that the Prussian Army would stop Hitler. And few have done more damage. As late as last May—after the invasion of Norway and a few days before the invasion of the Low Countries—high English and French government officials were still convinced that the Prussian Army would never allow Hitler to attack in the West, And while the earlier hopes in an open revolt of the Army had faded by then, it was still widely believed that sooner or later the old-line Prussian Junkers would assert themselves and would establish a government in Germany with which a peace could be negotiated.

Fantastic as such an illusion appears today, we can understand why it could find such wide currency. Today everybody knows that the old Europe, the Europe of the nineteenth century, is gone forever. But the responsible British and French officials of the early months of the war were still nineteenth century Europeans, and they still thought and acted in terms of a nineteenth century world. And to a nineteenth century European, a Germany in which the Army would not have decisive influence and authority must have appeared inconceivable. Historically, the Prussian Army has been the basis of German political development. It has been one of the institutional foundations of modern Europe, along with the British Parliament and the French bureaucracy, however different their subsequent developments have been. Through every European crisis and revolution the Prussian Army maintained itself as the one permanently effective political force in Central Europe. It has been truly indigenous to Germany, whereas democracy, parliamentary government, and Communism were all imported from abroad. It seemed reasonable, therefore, to expect that again the Prussian Army would emerge as the consolidating and organizing force in the German chaos. And since it was true that the Prussian Army leaders opposed Hitler’s military plans, it was only logical to believe that they would stop him.

It is not at all improbable that a military dictator will eventually succeed Hitler. But it is highly improbable that this dictator will be able to base his government upon the Prussian Army and its conservative tradition. For the Prussian Army is no more. As a political force it has ceased to exist. And it was not Hitler who killed it: the purges in the Reichswehr and the complete subordination of the old guard to the Nazi revolutionaries were just mopping-up operations. The Prussian Army died before Hitler came to power; at the very latest, it died during the World War, but probably even before 1914. Had the conservative spirit of the Army still been alive and effective in the ‘twenties, Hitler might never have come to power. The one thing that could have prevented the Nazi revolution would have been a strong and determined conservative opposition in republican Germany. Because the Prussian Army was no longer a living force, it could not organize such an opposition; and Hitler could grab control without meeting any real resistance.


It has become fashionable in recent popular writings on military matters to treat an army as a purely mechanical conglomeration of man-power and equipment. But equally important—perhaps even more important—are an army’s spirit and morale. Of no army has this ever been truer than of the Prussian Army—not only because almost all its wars were fought against materially stronger forces, but especially because the function of the Prussian Army was primarily not a military one. It was originally a political and social organization; its military system and its achievements were the results, not the causes, of its political and social functions.

To understand the unique structure of the Prussian Army, one must realize that it was a conscious and artificial creation. All the other major institutions of modern Europe have grown naturally and imperceptibly with their functions and with the changes in European society. But the idea of the Prussian Army was consciously conceived and formulated. It was the work of four Prussian princes ruling in succession from 1640, when the Great Elector of Brandenburg came to the throne of a tiny, backward, and depopulated principality, until 1790, when Frederick the Great died as king of Europe’s leading military power. These Prussian rulers alone among the princes of Europe understood that they lived in a period of great change in which the old feudal, decentralized, and basically anarchic society of the continent, with its divided and competing authorities of great nobles, free cities, exempt bishoprics, and weak kings, was rapidly changing into the modern centralized and sovereign state. They also rightly realized that this new force would crush Prussia unless Prussia too could be organized according to the new principles. But—and this is the key to an understanding of the Prussian Army—Prussia could not copy the national states of the West. Up to 1866 her territories were not a contiguous whole but were spread in disconnected parts all over northern Germany. There was no social or historical unity between the Polish-speaking peasants in the extreme east and the burghers in the old and rich cities on the Rhine, who were economically and culturally dependent on Flanders and France. Religiously, Prussia included Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics. It was extremely poor, without any foreign trade. It was menaced on all sides by much stronger neighbors: first Sweden, Denmark, Poland, and The Netherlands; later, France and Austria. Above all, a Prussian state could not be centered on national unity, which was the foundation of the modern state in the West. The concept of the nation as the basic principle of political organization was distinctly Western European and remained foreign to Germany up to the time of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Furthermore, Prussia was not in itself a nation, but only a part of Germany.

In this situation the Prussian rulers developed a structure which based the new institutional concepts of centralization, sovereign government, raison d’Hatj and primacy of the state upon the traditions of feudal chivalry and upon the mutual personal loyalty between the king and his officers. This personal bond supplied the unity which Prussia could find neither in national consciousness nor in territorial cohesion. By its very nature and tradition this basis of unity forced Prussia to organize the new state in the form of an army. But while the emotional foundation was intentionally medieval in its character, the mechanical organization of this army-state was modeled—consciously, according to some records—after the most successful and most blatantly “modern” of the institutions of the new Europe: the Jesuit order. And there was none of the old patrimonial and feudal substance left in that new state, despite all its appeal to the emotional values and to the personal relationships of the good old times. Above all, it had none of the feudal structure of mediaeval society. Nothing is further from the truth than to see in the Prussian Army officer a nobleman just because he has a von before his name. The Junkers have always been a middle class—economically, socially, and especially in their mentality.

The great majority of the Junkers were hardly better off than well-to-do farmers. The “large estates” of the Junkers were large only if compared with the five-acre plots of the peasants; but they were very small indeed compared to the land holdings of the genuine feudal aristocrats. Such large holdings as were the rule in all Europe before the French Revolution and still exist in England and Hungary were unknown in Prussia. The average Junker estate had hardly more than three hundred acres; a thousand-acre estate was decidedly unusual. Larger holdings existed to any extent only in the “new” territories, formerly Polish or Austrian, which were not joined to Prussia until the second half of the eighteenth century. Since the soil of the north German plains is so poor that farming had to be extensive—especially before artificial fertilizers were invented—even a thousand-acre estate did not yield more than a very modest living. And three hundred acres was regarded as the absolute minimum for efficient production in all but the most fertile districts. Socially, the Junker had the functions of a local justice of the peace and magistrate; he was patron of the local church and had jurisdiction in minor criminal cases. One of the local landowners was also responsible for the roads, the schools, and the taxes in each district. But the Junkers had none of the privileges and rights of the feudal seigneur of the ancient regime, not even the privilege of tax exemption, which was universally conceded to the European nobleman before 1789. The Prussian Junker joined the army as a second lieutenant and had to live for many years on very low pay, usually retiring to his estate with the rank of major and a small pension when he was forty-five or fifty. Socially, therefore, the position and function of the Prussian Junker was not better than that of the English squire. Economically, he was considerably below the level of the squire and barely above that of the lower middle class of artisans and small tradesmen.

The middle-class nature of the Junkers shows also in their mentality and in their cultural life. Their virtues—thrift, sobriety, industry, obedience to duty, and a longing for domestic bliss—were those of the rising middle classes. And so were their faults: narrow-mindedness, smug righteousness, and lack of imagination. The Junker had none of the civilization but also none of the corruption of the European aristocracy of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. While the aristocrats all over Europe were atheists and in thrall to the enlighteners, the Prussian Junkers participated in the great Protestant revivalist movement of the rising bourgeoisie which was started by John Wesley; a hundred years later, Prussian generals and cabinet ministers still conducted daily prayer-meetings in their houses. While the European aristocracy bought Boucher’s and Watteau’s over-refined canvasses and dressed up as shepherds and shepherdesses, the Junkers decorated their houses with the homely engravings of the German imitators of Hogarth, such as “The Arrival of the Mail-Coach” or “The Stag at Bay.” As late as 1860 no really wealthy man was given any but subaltern positions in the Prussian service; the Junkers did not tolerate anyone who “would give himself airs.” And in 1890 Bismarck found ground to complain that his old friends and colleagues were jealous of the eminence to which he had risen; they were used to generals or ministers, but they deeply resented that one of their class—even a Bismarck— should rise so much above them as to become a prince. While the Junker thus felt himself in opposition against the old feudal aristocracy, he did not—at least not until 1870—draw a sharp dividing line against the untitled bourgeoisie. At a time when marriages between commoners and noblemen were still unknown in Europe and actually forbidden in many smaller German states, the children of the Prussian Junkers and of the king’s untitled civil servants married each other frequently and as a matter of course.

Perhaps the best illustration of the middle class character of this society on which the Prussian Army and the Prussian state were founded is in the life and atmosphere of the Prussian Court. In the eighteenth century even the smallest princeling in Europe imitated Versailles and bankrupted himself and his subjects in the attempt to outshine the splendors of the French Court. But the King of Prussia, victor of three major wars, a Great Power, counted every penny like a miser and lived in an old palace not much better than a barrack. While all other courts in Europe worked out the most elaborate ceremonials and tried to build an insurmountable barrier between the ruler and even his closest advisers, the advisers, friends, and generals of the Prussian King sat down with him once a week for a completely informal party over beer and sausages—smoking their pipes, swapping stories, and calling each other by their first names.

There can be little doubt that this middle class Prussian Army was an astonishingly successful political concept. It made a Great Power out of Prussia within a hundred years. And within another century it made her the only power in Central Europe. But with all its successes the formula remained purely artificial—a skilful blend of such fundamentally incompatible elements as modern and efficient middle class rationalism and the traditional emotionalism of feudal chivalry. All of the Prussian leaders were highly conscious of this artificiality. They lived in a constant conflict between their personal loyalty to the king and their impersonal duty to the state, which explains why most of them were neurotics, given to nervous breakdowns and weeping fits; contrary to popular belief, there were few strong, silent, and ruthless men among the soldiers and statesmen of this strong and ruthless army-state. That “Prussianity” was a formula had some advantages. One could, for instance, become a Prussian simply by adopting the Prussian formula; Prussia could therefore draw upon the talent of all of Central Europe and was not confined to her own limited supply of officers and civil servants. A very large part of the leading Prussian officials and all the theoreticians and philosophers of the “Prussian idea” came from outside the country; they entered Prussian service only as mature men in full consciousness of the fact that their step was similar to the entry into a religious order. But this advantage was completely outweighed by the danger necessarily inherent in every artificial formula: its rigidity.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Prussian formula was successful because it had based the modern state upon a non-national concept of personal loyalty and upon a rural middle class. It thus converted Prussia’s greatest weaknesses, the absence of a Prussian nation and of an urban industrial middle class, into real assets. But during the second half of the nineteenth century Germany produced both a national consciousness and an industrial society. It became necessary to shift the state to new foundations. But the attempt to adjust the Prussian formula to those new social realities failed completely—and with it failed the Prussian Army.


It is Bismarck’s great historical achievement that he succeeded in the seemingly impossible task of organizing a German national state on the basis of the Prussian Army. Ever since the German national movement had begun in the Napoleonic wars, national unity and the Prussian army-state had appeared as irreconcilable contradictions. Revolutionary and liberal in its origin, the national movement saw in the conservative and monarchist Junker its greatest enemy. And how the Prussians felt was vividly shown by the indignant refusal of the King of Prussia to accept the title of German Kaiser offered to him by the revolutionary parliament of 1848. In the decades preceding Bismarck’s triumph in 1870 it was widely believed by both nationalists and Prussian conservatives that the national movement would end by uniting the rest of Germany in civil war on Prussia. That Bismarck found a way to square the circle by making the Prussian Army the instrument of national unification appeared therefore almost as a miracle.

But the miracle was possible only because Bismarck abandoned the most vital and important part of the Prussian Army concept: its character of a lay-order based on personal loyalty between ruler and members. In spite of the ingenious legal technique by means of which Bismarck tried to maintain the King of Prussia in his old character while making him German Emperor at the same time, it was obvious from the beginning that the emphasis in the new structure would be upon the united empire and not upon the member states; we may use terms from American constitutional history and say that the new structure was clearly a “nation” and not a mere “compact.” That meant that the Prussian Army no longer had a genuine political function and no longer could enjoy a privileged personal relationship with the head of the state. From being the structural support of their state, the Junkers became overnight just one particularly privileged class.

That the Prussian Army itself understood or at least felt that it was destroying itself in its victories is shown by the determined resistance of the Prussian King against the advancement which Bismarck gave to him; the old King complained so bitterly that his trusted servant and personal friend had turned traitor that Bismarck was almost driven to suicide, as he himself recounts. The Prussian conservatives also felt that Bismarck, who had come into power through being their leader, was betraying them and they openly broke with him just after the victorious Franco-Prussian War. The great majority of the Junkers withdrew into sullen opposition to the new unified German national state. But since the whole German development drove inevitably toward even greater unification and centralization, their opposition simply meant that they lost all constructive possibilities and became mere reactionaries—out of step with, and without understanding of, the political reality.

Even more disastrous for the Prussian Army, however, was the fact that the new state was by necessity urban and industrial. Bismarck’s generation had grown up in an exclusively agricultural country, but the war of 1870 was won as much by Germany’s industrial as by her military establishment. The power, welfare, and policy of the new Reich rested from the beginning upon industry and trade; its problems were primarily those of an industrial society. Originally, the Prussian Army class had no greater objections against the industrialists and the tradesmen than had their counterpart, the English “gentlemen.” But two factors made it impossible for them to follow the English gentry and to merge themselves with the rising bourgeoisie. In the first place, the Prussian Junker was poor, and was getting poorer as the competition of the new overseas agricultural countries reduced the prices of grain and meat. Had he admitted the new urban upper class and upper middle class on a footing of equality, he would have been swamped by the quickly growing wealth of the newcomers. In the second place, the Junker had always been taught that his duty to the common weal had priority over his own interests. He could therefore not accept the philosophy of laissez faire, especially in its treatment of labor. As early as 1830 conservative leaders in Germany had warned against the development of a proletariat as a danger to society. With the growth of industry, this opposition to rugged individualism had increased so much that the conservative Prussian Army officer had become openly anti-capitalist by 1890. Yet he was anything but a socialist. While there was so much sympathy for the social and economic demands of the working class that Bismarck at one time held long talks with Ferdinand Lassalle, the founder of the German trade unions and of the labor movement, about the formation of a conservative anti-capitalist labor party, the Prussian Junker had no liking for the political and social demands and theories of labor. His ideal was the application to industrial society of the Prussian Army principles of common devotion to duty and mutual loyalty between master and man—a kind of paternal nationwide company union. Out of this attitude grew the German labor legislation which first introduced sickness, accident, and old age insurance. But although the Prussian conservative thus served as advance guard of the labor movement, neither capital nor labor appreciated his efforts but united in regarding him as their common enemy.

The shrewd old Bismarck clearly diagnosed the signs of decay of the Army tradition as early as 1888, when Wilhelm II became Prussian King and German Emperor. The new ruler was the first Hohenzollern who had not grown up as an officer in the Prussian Army. He clearly did not desire to live with his Prussian Junkers in the traditional relationship of personal loyalty and friendship; he wanted a rich, brilliant court and therefore preferred to find his courtiers among the wealthy non-Prussian feudal aristocracy or among the new industrialists. Even if the last Kaiser had been a much wiser and far more conservative man he would have found it difficult to base himself upon the Army as his ancestors had done, for he had obviously and inevitably to be more a German Kaiser than a Prussian King. Socially the Junkers were therefore dislodged. Economically, they grew poorer while the wealth of the new middle classes increased all the time. And politically the fight between capital and labor became the main domestic problem—a fight in which the Junker had no stake, which he could not arbitrate and did not understand; he disliked both sides and was heartily disliked by them. Not even in the fighting forces did the Junker retain his position; the new navy which was built up rapidly was officered almost exclusively by the new urban upper and middle classes. In this position the spirit and morale of the Junkers broke. Trying to pretend that they were a real aristocracy, they became arrogant and “exclusive.” They refused to take any responsibility for the political or social development of the country, and they used their hold on the army to claim by right of might privileges and distinctions which formerly had been their due by virtue of their constructive functions.

By 1914 the Junkers had even lost the army. When historians write the moral history of the World War, they will certainly prove that the turning point was the complete moral collapse of the Prussian Army leadership during the first months of the conflict, which resulted in the halting of the German advance at the Marne and in the abandonment of the only military plan which, according to the German strategists themselves, could have made possible a German victory in a war on two fronts. The result of this internal disintegration of the Old Prussian spirit and morale was the rise of General Erich Ludendorff to the command of the German armies in 1917 and 1918. Whatever Ludendorffs military genius, he was clearly the antithesis of everything the Prussian Army had believed in. He did not even understand its political and social concept of the state but regarded the army as a mere machine, as a problem in advanced engineering in which no human or political element was involved. The rank and file of the German army was still sustained by the Prussian Army tradition during the World War; but it had become a mere tradition which no longer had any constructive force. And by 1918 even the tradition had worn very thin.


The post-War history of the German Republic shows the complete bankruptcy of the Prussian spirit and army tradition. The German people wanted and needed a conservative party, even if only in opposition. There was no dearth of conservative leaders; the four outstanding figures in the political life of post-War Germany, Max Weber, Walter Rathenau, Gustav Stresemann, and Heinrich Bruening, were all conservatives by nature and conviction. Nor was the opportunity missing. At least once, during the inflationary crisis of 1923, the army held all the power; and the Left itself would have welcomed a strong conservative opponent. Yet the Prussian Army class could never organize a conservative opposition. It could not solve the most important task in republican Germany: to formulate a conservative social creed based upon a restatement of the rights of the individual.

All liberal and left-wing movements on the European continent have had a strong totalitarian trend toward a doctrinaire absolutism that tends to ignore completely the rights of the individual. That is not only true of Germany; the French experience with the Popular Front government has shown a similar trend. Of course, neither the French socialists nor the German democrats before Hitler would ever have sanctioned the abolition of free speech or of religious liberty in actual political practice. But in their doctrines they postulated the unlimited right of the majority and the absolute sovereignty of the people over all minority and individual rights. In doctrine, the continental European Left descends from Hobbes and Rousseau, and not from Locke or Jefferson. From their point of view, individual rights are not inalienable and innate but owe their existence to the voluntary self-limitation of the majority; they do not spring from the dignity of the individual human being but are necessary evils arising from the fact that administrators and governments, being human, cannot be trusted to be incorruptible and absolutely just. Individual rights were a technical abstraction to the average continental European liberal rather than the positive foundation of society; he always thought of the rights of men, never of the rights of man. This explains why such phrases as “dictatorship of the proletariat” or “dictatorship of the elite” had so much fatal attraction for the continental European liberal, and why all intellectual leaders of the Fascist parties came from the Left.

In post-War Germany the need for a restatement of the rights of the individual was particularly pressing. Here was a country which had never before had popular government but which had the most fully developed theories and doctrines about it, since the liberals had been in opposition for a hundred years. Furthermore, the Christian churches, the only forces which had a positive and constructive concept of the rights of man, based on the dignity of man, were singularly impotent and without influence after 1918. And a conservative party which would have been able to develop a genuine theory about the limitations of the majority and of the state would therefore have been a badly needed stabilizing influence in the bitter and destructive social fight.

A conservative party which could have accomplished this task would have been the greatest obstacle to the Nazi movement. If this sort of conservative approach to the social question could have been worked out, the masses might have found a refuge when they despaired of the senseless class struggle. All the conservatives in republican Germany saw this situation and understood the importance of their function. There was a flood of books and pamphlets discussing the problems of “living conservatism.” Every six months or so a new group or party was being formed with the express purpose of achieving the “conservative mission.” Yet one can hardly imagine a greater failure than that of the conservative movement in post-War Germany. The Left was often mediocre, unimaginative, timid, and uninspired; but the Right did not exist at all; it had no political program and no political effectiveness whatsoever. The Prussian Army could not break through its own tradition, even when that tradition had already broken down. The Junker could— and in many cases did—stand pat on Prussian state-rights; or he could turn nationalist. But he could not find any approach to the problems of industrial society. He had no choice other than that between complete political resignation and complete abandonment of all his conservative principles; and in either case he was politically impotent.

The Nazis understood this better and earlier than anybody else. Hitler never allowed any political co-operation between the Nazis and any other party, not even on a technical point of parliamentary procedure. But he eagerly accepted every offer of collaboration from the Prussian Army class and its political representatives, no matter what the terms were. He knew that the conservatives were completely ineffectual and harmless, and that he could remain the boss even if all the honors and advantages of the alliance should seemingly accrue to his partner. His lieutenants were often convinced that he had betrayed the Nazi revolution and had delivered himself into the hands of the “old guard reactionaries.” But Hitler himself was certain that an alliance between conservatives and Nazis would always strengthen the Nazi movement and hasten the disintegration of the Prussian Army spirit and tradition, which he hated just as much as any German liberal ever did. While the Army during the first years of the Nazi regime deluded itself into believing that it had again regained power and that it could get rid of the Nazi mob any time it chose to do so, Hitler quietly completed the destruction of its political and social power and prestige. Today the Prussian Army officer of the old school is just a military specialist retained by the successful revolution for his technical skill. But he has no political influence. And for the first time in three hundred years of German history the economic basis of Junker power is also being attacked successfully; today the Junkers are finding out that it is only a question of time until their estates will have become state-owned collective farms.

Twenty-five years ago the democracies of Western Europe entered a war to free Europe from the Prussian Army. Today, these same democracies seem to regard the destruction of the Prussian Army as a major disaster. The Prussian Army was not as perfect an institution as some of the most implacable of its former foes now want us to believe. Much of what was said against it twenty-five years ago still stands. But with all its dangers and weaknesses, it was part of Europe; it was built upon common European principles, motivated by the same forces which motivated the rest of Europe, and it acknowledged the same rational principles of conduct. In nineteenth century Europe it played a role similar to that played by Sparta in ancient Greece. And with all her great faults, Sparta was still Greek—and not barbarian.


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Philip Arlington's picture
Philip Arlington · 5 years ago

Mostly a good article, but American prejudices and fallacies slip in here and there, and as is typical of American writing about the past, most often to the disadvantage of England. Marriages between nobles and commoners certainly weren't unknown in Europe, and in England even dukes quite often married commoners. E.g. the 4th Duke of Devonshire, possibly the grandest man in England, and briefly the Prime Minister, had for a mother, the wife of his father the 3rd duke, Catherine Hoskins, a commoner described by Horace Walpole as "delightfully vulgar". Nor is it true that nobles were exempt from taxes throughout Europe before 1789. They weren't in England for a start.

"The aristocrats all of Europe were atheists" is a wild overstatement and the continuation "in thrall to the enlighteners" is even worse, suggesting that the late author mostly just saw the glamorous (French part) he wanted to see and didn't bother to investigate the more obscure parts of the continent before making a wild generalisation.

I could go on, but I won't, except to say that  Frederick the Great died in 1786, which really is the sort of thing that an expert should know, especially as it is so easy to look up, even before the internet, and that speaking of the internet this article is a useful reminder that, like the net, reputed professors writing for publication on paper are far from being reliable sources.


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