In 9BC, Drusus Claudius Nero and his Roman legions conquered all of Germania until he reached the River Elbe. There, he had a supernatural admonition to stop. Almost two thousand years later, in the 1920s, Konrad Adenauer, the mayor of the very western, Catholic and originally Roman city of Cologne, shared that intuition. Every time he journeyed eastwards across the Elbe deeper into Prussia toward Berlin, he closed the curtains in his train compartment, muttering: “Here we go, Asia again.” Adenauer became the first chancellor of post-war West Germany in 1949 and his greatest legacy was to bind this new, or rather extremely old, civilization into the larger West. The “loss” of East Germany he privately viewed as a fringe benefit.
So why was, and is, “East Elbia” so different? Most people today assume that it’s simply because of the Russian occupation of 1945-89. And indeed the Elbe formed part of the boundary between a democratic and capitalist West and a totalitarian and communist East Germany. But the truth is that Germany had already been split for 800 years into west-facing and east-facing societies. This is key to the tragic conundrum which has puzzled so many friends of Germany: how was it that the land of Beethoven and Goethe unleashed two vast wars in Europe? The simple answer is: it didn’t. But to understand this, we need to look afresh at the whole story of Germany.
For 1800 years, western and southern Germany were integral to Western Europe. From 800AD-1200AD they were the unrivaled heart of it (when Berlin wasn’t even a collection of huts on the River Spree). Once a proto-modern civil and burgher society developed, the western and southern Germans embraced this culture just as the Venetians or Florentines did.
The Hanseatic League, based in Bremen and Cologne, became the most potent, not to mention lucrative, non-state organization ever seen in Europe. In London, the English were so impressed by the Hansa’s probity that they even named their own currency, sterling, after these Easterlings. The artisan guilds of Mainz and Nuremberg were the leaders of late-medieval/early-Renaissance technology, masters of the clocks, astrolabes and printing-presses which transformed how people saw the world. The Fugger dynasty of Augsburg bankrolled entire empires. German taxes kept the Papacy liquid. These enterprising Germans were so opposed to Big Government that they refused to give up their local freedoms and unite.
Unfortunately for them (and much of the world), another sort of Germany was born in 1147, when crusading knights crossed the Elbe and invaded the pagan and Slavic lands beyond it. A second wave moved further after 1226. These drives into a poor, harsh, hostile landscape gave rise to a uniquely colonial, statist and militarist way of doing things. In 1525, the Teutonic Knights adopted the name of a local Baltic people and declared themselves the very first Protestant state on earth: “Prussia”.
While Germany stayed disunited, this Prussia grew. After the Napoleonic wars, it got lucky when the all-powerful British, obsessed with the “balance of power” (i.e. keeping Europeans at one another’s throats), suddenly handed Prussia a huge chunk of the wealthy Rhineland. Even then, however, no one proposed that Prussia should rule all Germany. Unification was dreamed of, but everyone assumed that when it came, Prussia would dissolve into Germany. Germany’s capital would naturally be the central, but decidedly western, Frankfurt, where liberal ideals almost succeeded in uniting the country in 1848.
The very East-Elbian Otto von Bismarck had other ideas. In June 1865 Prussian troops, bayonets fixed, cleared central Cologne of pro-freedom demonstrators (they even used an elephant from the zoo to help drive off the liberals). Bismarck saw that Prussia faced a simple choice: either regime change or the military conquest of all Germany. He chose the latter.
On July 3, 1866, at Königgratz, in the greatest European battle between 1813 and 1914, Bismarck’s Prussians mowed down the rival Austrians with a new kind of infantry weapon, the dreaded Prussian needle-gun. The small states and kingdoms of Germany tried to defend their timeless freedoms for another three weeks but stood no chance. On 23 July, Prussian Field Marshall von Manteuffel informed the citizens of hated Frankfurt that if they didn’t produce 25 million Gulden in cash for Prussia within 24 hours, their defenseless city would be bombarded and given over to plunder. Bismarck delayed the final assimilation until 1870 (when it could be spun as Prussia having “saved Germany from France”). But the rest was history – Prussian history.
That history lasted only seventy-four years. It ended in 1945, when Prussia, along with Nazi Germany, was erased right down to the name. The only people who can actually remember it are into their 80s now. I asked one of them recently if he ever missed life on the family lands in 1930s East Prussia. He replied: “Thirty below, the Russians twenty miles down the road, and my father making me stand to attention to sing ‘I am a Prussian’? Miss it? What’s to miss?!”
Nothing. Yet in the popular mind of so many Europeans and Anglo-Saxons, Prussia lives on. Reunited Germany today has absorbed the East Germans of the former Prussia and even has an East-Elbian woman as chancellor. But western Germany, by weight of population and industry, once again tilts the nation decidedly to its Western, capitalist, liberal heritage. And yet the moment this Germany stops paying up happily – in the euro crisis or any other crisis – neighbors espy the Prussian bogeyman. Here we go again: the clipped “Postdam tone”, scar-faced heel-clicking, ruthlessly efficient planning and zombie-like worship of the State. Margaret Thatcher was so obsessed by these visions that in 1989 (to the horror of the USA) she said an alliance with Russia might be needed if Germany reunited.
Ultimately, the seventy-four-year Prussian Empire and its Nazi stepchild were an aberration – vast and terrible, but short – in the long history of Germany. With Prussia dead and East Germany gone, Germany is once again what it almost always was: a great, federal nation which, though clearly distinct from the Mediterranean lands, is a constituent part of western Europe. And right now, with the Anglo-Saxon powers seeming to withdraw from Europe and Vladimir Putin unchallenged in Russia, it’s more than that – it’s Europe’s only hope. We’re going to have to trust Germany. If we re-learn its true history, we’ll see exactly why we can and should.
James Hawes’s new book, The Shortest History of Germany, is out now.