“State within a State”, Reflections on “The Politics of the Prussian Army 1640-1945”

My recent readings of the book, “The Politics of the Prussian Army 1640-1945” by Gordon A. Craig has led me to dwell on the topics of modernity, changes in authority, and the State, among other things. Here I will discuss some of the thoughts that occurred while reading and reflecting on Craig’s book.

When Frederick William assumed the throne of Brandenburg in 1640, he inherited the unenviable position of being the sovereign of a small kingdom that had to rely on adroit diplomacy with the larger powers that ringed its central location in Europe to maintain its independence. The Great Elector, as Frederick William would be later known as, saw the establishment of a strong, central army as the avenue through which he would achieve safety and stability for the Hohenzollern dynasty. In a parallel fashion, the Great Elector embarked on creating a strong and centralized State administration that would be able to maintain the costs of the army.

Thus, marked the beginning of the Age of Absolutism in Prussia: the reciprocal feedback loop of the King using his army to break nobles in revolt to secure steady streams of taxation for the State that was used to maintain the army. It is during the Great Elector’s reign that we observe the crystallization of modernity within the creation of the secular State structure. The State was wielded by the Great Elector and subsequent monarchs as an instrument for perpetuating and expanding the Hohenzollern realm. It was a modern function with a feudal purpose.

Otto von Bismarck’s employment as a civilian minister of the Hohenzollern throne marks the maturation of the State, of it becoming conscious of its own interests. Bismarck himself had changed from a proponent of Absolutism in the 1840s to a practitioner of Realpolitik and realistic opportunism by the time he became Minister President in 1862. Throughout his entire career Bismarck ran against the grain of King William I and the Prussian Officer Corps for he sought the expansion of Prussian power at the expense of its German cousin Austria.

While Bismarck himself operated within the paradigm of Staatsräson, the Hohenzollerns and their Army were tied to operating with feudal conceptions of dynastic ties and kinship. Bismarck had nothing but disdain for this romantic, reactionary view of politics and sought to limit its influence on foreign policy. Despite being the Sovereign and having undying loyalty of the Army, King William continually acquiesced to Bismarck due to the sheer amount of political and diplomatic talent the Junker possessed, and the immense material benefit he brought with his policies. In fact, due to Bismarck’s machinations, King William I was able to crown himself Emperor of Germany by following the path of unification laid down by Bismarck.

What was once an infant nurtured by the Great Elector, the State had become a great engine of destruction, of unification, of power by the time of King William I/Emperor Wilhelm 200 years later. These later Hohenzollern monarchs were intoxicated by the power granted by this State. They were essentially riding the tiger. This State that allowed them to expand the prestige of their dynasty and their imperial holdings increasingly gnawed away at the power invested in the Throne. Frederick the Great was an absolute monarch of unquestioned authority of both the State and the Army. Hohenzollerns after 1848 had to continually juggle the interests of Parliament, of the State administration, and even the Army which was beginning to take on its own internal logic and preferences. Seemingly, these Kings had become mere executives.

It is often repeated that “Prussia is an army with a state”. Well, what is a State? The State is the monopoly holder of the legitimate use of violence, but more interestingly, the State is the perpetuation of the State. This is part of the Iron Law of bureaucracy. In effect, the Great Elector created two different States: the civil administration and the army and its own administrative apparatus that operated within the formal ‘State’ (the Army consumed upwards to 86% of the State’s budget throughout the reign of Frederick the Great).

Despite the Great Elector manufacturing both States, neither of them required him in particular to survive and expand as is witnessed in subsequent Prussian then German history. This is the essence of modernity: a state unconcerned with ecclesiastical and hereditary affairs, concerned with only its own perpetuation, in leveling all institutions below it, all the while happening within the milieu of European Enlightenment and scientific discoveries. The State became a science.

While the Army swore fealty to the King, the State administration did not have such romantic notions of service. The Prussian/German Officer Corps itself was not immune from the influence of modernity however. Throughout their history they continually interfered in the operations of the State on the behalf of their own interests. They swore an oath to their King, each King, but they outlived the monarchy. When your feudal relationship is severed, who then do you swear allegiance to?

In the Post-WWI period, this meant swearing allegiance to a republic they had fought against being beholden to for so long. While this was a gut check was already painful to reconcile, insult to injury was added when National Socialists leveled the criticism that the Army had sworn allegiance to the decadent Weimar Republic. Likewise, many young officers in the Army leveled the same accusations towards the upper echelons of command. Yet to the those who were older and battle-hardened at the top of the Officer Corps, they believed that they were the purest representation of the State.

Indeed, the Officer Corps and Army had survived since the days of the Great Elector, witnessing the passage of many forms of government. Men like Schleicher and Hammerstein, high ranking officers in the late 1920s, believed they were in a transitory period and the Weimar Republic would not last. They also saw themselves above the petty party politics that came to dominate Germany during the Great Depression. For years, the Officer Corps attempted to stymie the rise of National Socialism only to capitulate to Hitler in January 1933. The Fuhrer did not waste any time in bending the State to the politics of his party and eventually bringing the Army into the fold as well.

The history of Prussia is a great case study in State morphology. What initially started out as an organ of the King became the organ of a constitutional monarchy and a Liberal body politic and finally the organ of a national political party. Throughout these transitions the Army stood parallel as a State of its own, with the power to sway politics as the purveyor of imperial violence but declining to do so at critical junctures. They failed to deliver decisive blows to encroachments to its domain in the liberal revolutions of 1848, in post-Wilhelmine Germany, and with the ascendancy of National Socialism.

Our current State morphology is a mutation of its classical liberal conception, with influences with rogue clandestine elements, academic and media institutional inflows, ethnic enclaves, banking and corporate finance, various industrial complexes, with the military itself with only a meager slice of this pie. The State is more than just violence.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I would recommend as further reading both Erich Eyck’s biography of Bismark and Christopher Clark’s _Iron Kingdom_, particularly the latter in regards to your driving thesis, which seems to follow the Sonderweg Thesis of Prussianism that has lately, for one reason or another, been abandoned by historians of Germany as an explanation for the Nazi state.

    You might be oversimplifying the process of transformation that takes place; the German Reich, after all, gave primacy of place to Prussia but the Reich was not altogether Prussian in structure, and in fact the intricacies of its bureaucratic administration owes much to the Frankfurt movement and Prussian allies in the wars of unification. Don’t neglect Bismarck’s place among the Junker class or the fact that Wilhelm was declared German Emperor, not Emperor of Germany, a seemingly pedantic but ideologically significant difference that rankled with the Prussian King, who had been offered the Imperial Crown by Frankfurt in 1848 and had “refused to lift a crown from the gutter” of parliamentarianism.


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