Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947

Paperback | February 28, 2009

byChristopher Clark

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In the aftermath of World War II, Prussia--a centuries-old state pivotal to Europe's development--ceased to exist. In their eagerness to erase all traces of the Third Reich from the earth, the Allies believed that Prussia, the very embodiment of German militarism, had to be abolished.

But as Christopher Clark reveals in this pioneering history, Prussia's legacy is far more complex. Though now a fading memory in Europe's heartland, the true story of Prussia offers a remarkable glimpse into the dynamic rise of modern Europe.

What we find is a kingdom that existed nearly half a millennium ago as a patchwork of territorial fragments, with neither significant resources nor a coherent culture. With its capital in Berlin, Prussia grew from being a small, poor, disregarded medieval state into one of the most vigorous and powerful nations in Europe. Iron Kingdom traces Prussia's involvement in the continent's foundational religious and political conflagrations: from the devastations of the Thirty Years War through centuries of political machinations to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, from the enlightenment of Frederick the Great to the destructive conquests of Napoleon, and from the "iron and blood" policies of Bismarck to the creation of the German Empire in 1871, and all that implied for the tumultuous twentieth century.

By 1947, Prussia was deemed an intolerable threat to the safety of Europe; what is often forgotten, Clark argues, is that it had also been an exemplar of the European humanistic tradition, boasting a formidable government administration, an incorruptible civil service, and religious tolerance. Clark demonstrates how a state deemed the bane of twentieth-century Europe has played an incalculable role in Western civilization's fortunes. Iron Kingdom is a definitive, gripping account of Prussia's fascinating, influential, and critical role in modern times.

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In the aftermath of World War II, Prussia--a centuries-old state pivotal to Europe's development--ceased to exist. In their eagerness to erase all traces of the Third Reich from the earth, the Allies believed that Prussia, the very embodiment of German militarism, had to be abolished.But as Christopher Clark reveals in this pioneering ...

Christopher Clark is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at St. Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of Politics of Conversion: Missionary Protestantism and the Jews in Prussia 1728-1941 and Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the coeditor of Culture Wars: Catholic-Secular Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Europe.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:800 pages, 9.25 × 6.14 × 0.07 inPublished:February 28, 2009Publisher:HarvardLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0674031962

ISBN - 13:9780674031968

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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very enjoyable and informative I found this book to offer a fairly balanced perspective that covers more than just the political history (although it certainly does that). It focuses on the personalities, perspectives, and aims of the leaders, and it also includes chapters on the social and cultural development of the region. It has a nice iterative style to it, where several chapters cover political development, and are then followed up by a few chapters on the development of such things as religion and enlightenment thinking, industry, and evolution of social classes over the same time period, before moving on. It's helpful to have at least a vague sense of what else was going on in Europe at the time (i.e. what is the Habsburg Empire), though I felt that detailed knowledge was certainly not required. Overall, it reads quite well as a narrative, and strikes a nice balance between detail and analysis.
Date published: 2013-11-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Readable Analysis! For almost ninety-years, the word “Prussia” has been synonymous with everything that was erroneous about the twentieth century: flummery of militarism, exhibition of absolutism, prejudice, division and wars. In midst of the WWII, Winston Churchill once roared in the House of Commons by describing Prussia as “a recurring pestilence,” and went on further in his characteristically abrasive yet eloquent way, “[Prussia is a] war machine with its clanking, heel-clicking dandified Prussian officers… the dull, dried docile brutish masses of the Hun soldiers plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts.” Even to this day, Prussia’s legacy is passionately debated in historical circles, its flames either enhancing or harming a historian’s reputation. Christopher Clark’s new book, “Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947” begins by explaining these uncomfortable opinions – opinions that still haunt Germany. This great Cambridge historian, however, has the following thesis which is both original and potent: “Germany was not part of Prussia’s fulfilment… but its undoing;” with this mere sentence he smashes stereotypical, but widely accepted assessments to smithereens. He neither supports the cause of Prussophiles nor does he belittle its legacy by merely calling its legacy to be an “infirmity” on Germany’s reputation. “Instead,” he explains his reason for penning this book in the Introduction, “this book aims to understand the forces that made and unmade Prussia.” This remarkable book begins with Prussia’s death after the Second World War. From there, we are introduced to Brandenburg and John Sigismund and his Hohenzollern dynasty, a family that will continue to rule until 1918. Clark’s has written a book in such a manner that even those who do not know much of European history will be able to grasp, and indeed learn about this most important state of the first-half of the twentieth century. I have learnt more European history by reading his book of 688 pages than I would do from my history course in University. In Clark’s panorama account you will learn about the making of a great state, its kings and politicians, it chief military leaders, its glory and failure, its neighbouring Powers; three partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795, respectively; Napoleon’s conquest of Prussia; the period of the Four Wars under Bismarck and the rise and fall of Nazism. Indeed it would be not be an exaggeration at all to claim hat Prussia made the world as it is today. The most astonishing aspect of the book is that not only does it deal with Electors and Kings of Prussia, but also with its other architects of the state. Clark does not merely tell us about Prussia’s Junker class and their military manoeuvres, but he almost elucidates Prussia as a noble and tolerant state. Prussia was a land that gave birth to such exceptional kings as The Great Elector and Frederick the Great; it produced as unique politicians as Johann David Ludwig, von Hardenberg, and von Bismarck; it was nourished by as enlightened a philosopher as Hegel. There was a time when Prussia presided over a Jewish Enlightened, especially under as wise man as Moses Mendelssohn, a Jew who was respected and loved by many non-Jewish Prussians. In the end it is through the legacy of the depraved Nazi that we judge Prussia today. It would be fatuous to deny that Prussia played no part in the emergence of the Nazis. As one Prussian, a descendant of the Junker class wrote in the 1920s: “Only a dictator can help us now, one who will sweep an iron broom through this whole international parasitic scum. If only we had, like the Italians, a Mussolini.” They will indeed get their version of Mussolini in a form of Hitler, but he will destroy and to some extent rewrite the history of Prussia. Goebbels took every advantage of Prussia’s history and selectively claimed it to be muscularly intertwined with the debauched Nazi ideals. As Clark writes in the end, “The western allies needed no persuading that Nazism was merely the latest manifestation of Prussianism.” Prussia is long gone now; the statues of its Kaisers and statesman taken down or destroyed – whether for the good or for the ill, the reader must judge. But before we place this monster of a word “Prussia” alongside with everything that was wrong with the twentieth century, perhaps we should look back and learn the entire history of the state, and for that you have to read this book!
Date published: 2012-09-08

Extra Content

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Maps



1. The Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg

2. Devastation

3. An Extraordinary Light in Germany

4. Majesty

5. Protestants

6. Powers in the Land

7. Struggle for Mastery

8. Dare to Know!

9. Hubris and Nemesis: 1789-1806

10. The World the Bureaucrats Made

11. A Time of Iron

12. God's March through History

13. Escalation

14. Splendour and Misery of the Prussian Revolution

15. Four Wars

16. Merged into Germany

17. Endings



Editorial Reviews

[A] valuable book...[Clark] shows how complicated the history of Prussia really was, and how exciting were the contrasts in its history between religious tolerance and intolerance, enlightenment and obscurantism, centralized power and regional particularism, the rule of law and ruthless authoritarianism...Prussia and its army were full of contradictions, and Clark analyzes them astutely in his book, which is certainly the best recent history of Prussia...[A] masterpiece in which charming anecdotes and serious intellectual analyses mix comfortably with political and military history and descriptions of cultural and social phenomena...Clark's book seldom becomes dull, owing to the elegance of its style and the colorfulness of some of its powerful characters.