The Origins of Prussian Militarism

April 23, 2012 | | Comments Off on The Origins of Prussian Militarism

Peter H. Wilson suggests that the aggressiveness of Wilhelmine Germany was not necessarily a direct consequence of the Prussian social system of the eighteenth century.

The story of Prussia’s transformation from potential victim of hostile international forces into a dominant and aggressive state often seems miraculous. To those who viewed it in the eighteenth century, it inspired a mixture of admiration and apprehension. These feelings gave way in the nineteenth century to a rather less critical glorification fostered by the authorities and German nationalist historians like Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-96), who saw Prussia’s rise as the foundation of a united and dynamic imperial Germany. This vision disintegrated in the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century, after which Prussia’s earlier rise appeared a historical ‘wrong turn’ (Sonderweg) on the path to modernity. It remains nonetheless a compelling tale that requires explanation.

Known as the ‘sandbox of the Holy Roman Empire’ on account of its poor soil and limited natural resources, the lands of the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty were scattered across northern Europe from what is now modern Poland along the southern Baltic shore through to isolated enclaves on the Dutch border. When Frederick William (1620-88) became Elector or ruler of Brandenburg in 1640, he inherited a collection of different provinces lacking in common bonds or a uniform administration.

Even the army, numbering a few thousand unreliable mercenaries, was split into regiments funded separately by the different provincial administrations. By his death in 1688, Frederick William had faced off his Polish and Swedish enemies, ruthlessly suppressed domestic opposition, imposed new taxes, forged common institutions and established a permanent army of no fewer than 29,154 men. He would go down in history as the ‘Great Elector’. His son and successor, Frederick I (1657-1713), would receive a less prominent place in Prussian history, but nonetheless acquired a royal title for Prussia itself in 1701 and added another 10,000 men to the army. This force was effectively doubled during the reign of King Frederick William I (r.1713-40), known to posterity as the ‘soldier king’ for his obsession with all things military and his passion for his ‘giant grenadiers’, a special regiment of exceptionally tall men stationed at his palace in Potsdam who, when the King was feeling unwell, would march through his bedroom to cheer him up. However, it was only under his son, Frederick II ‘the Great’ (r.1740-86), that this well-drilled army was really tested in battle. Whereas only 15,000 sq km of new territory had been added to the Hohenzollern domains between 1648 and Frederick’s accession in 1740, over 75,000 sq km were acquired by the time of his death in 1786 through the conquest of new lands, particularly at the expense of Poland and the Austrian Habsburg monarchy. A further 113,500sq km were seized in 1793-95 during the final carve-up that removed Poland from Europe’s map until 1918. These gains increased the overall size of the Hohenzollern monarchy from around 1.6 million inhabitants in 1713 to at least 8.5 million by 1795. Impressive as these figures were, they failed to explain the phenomenal growth of the Prussian army, which already ranked fourth in size in Europe by 1740, while the country was only in thirteenth place in terms of population.

Contemporaries felt that this transformation was due to something more than the gritty determination and tactical skill of the Prussian monarchs and pointed to a deeper, underlying militarisation of Prussian state and society as the reason for the country’s emergence as a great power. Among the most perceptive was the Austrian chief minister, Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz (1711-94), who identified the ‘canton system’ introduced between 1713 and 1733 by Frederick William I as the cause of a new militarism. This system was a form of conscription which divided the entire Prussian monarchy into cantons, or recruiting districts assigned to each regiment. In a practice known as enrolling, lists were kept of all males from the age of religious confirmation. The regiment drew men from the list as required to keep it up to strength, training them for about a year before giving them furlough; in other words discharging them on unpaid leave. Industrial zones and those individuals who were wealthy or deemed of value to the state were exempt from service. The regiments remained in being thanks to a cadre of paid professionals serving throughout the year, many of whom were recruited from outside the Prussian monarchy, while the conscripts were recalled annually for a period of intensive training. This system enabled Prussia to maximise its military potential without destabilising its labour-intensive agrarian economy since the discharged conscripts were free to work their landlords’ fields for most of the year, thus sustaining productivity and with it state taxes, while also mollifying the Junkers, the feudal aristocracy on whom the crown depended for its officers and administrators.

While recognising that it had certain technical military advantages, Kaunitz felt the canton system was ‘repulsive’ as it led to the total subordination of all civil life to military requirements, creating ‘unending oppression and extortion’, a slavish mentality on the part of the population and suffocating the freedom and patriotism he believed flourished in more progressive countries like Britain and the Dutch Republic. Moreover, the ‘Prussian military state’ was inherently unstable with an in-built propensity to war as it could only sustain itself through external aggression to acquire ever more territory and resources. This had led to a new kind of total war in ‘that the king does not just exploit his own population, money and military potential, but also all the inhabitants, money, food and other materials of innocent and neutral neighbours as far as force enables him’.

Emperor Joseph II (r.1765-90) rejected Kaunitz’s advice and introduced Prussian-style conscription into the Habsburg lands after 1771 in an effort to match the threat posed by Frederick the Great. However, subsequent historians have tended to agree with the minister’s assessment of the fateful consequences of the canton system. In an influential thesis, the German post-war historian Otto Büsch argued that it consolidated the compromise between the Hohenzollern dynasty and the feudal Junker aristocracy that underpinned Prussian absolutism since the reign of the Great Elector in the later seventeenth century. In return for voting taxes for the army and surrendering their say in determining foreign policy in the 1650s, the Junkers received confirmation and extension of their powers over their peasant tenants, tying them to perpetual servitude and forced labour. The subsequent expansion of the army under Frederick William after 1713 consolidated this by offering the Junkers socially prestigious and financially rewarding positions in the officer corps. The canton system completed the process by tightening the Junkers’ grip on their serfs, especially since their monopoly of officer posts ensured that many aristocrats were simultaneously both captain and landlord over the same group of serf-conscripts. Since the army now regarded every man as a potential recruit, attempts to leave the country were equated with desertion so that military discipline reinforced feudal jurisdiction, creating what some have called a ‘military-agrarian complex’ or community of interest between monarchy, army and feudal aristocracy.

Though this system enabled Prussia to wage war successfully in the mid-eighteenth century, it became increasingly inflexible – as change to any part of this structure threatened the web of vested interests. This appears to account for the rigidity that contemporaries noted in the Prussian army after the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) as it became a force drilled to perfection but unable to cope with any serious reverse. These weaknesses were exposed by the crushing defeat at the twin battles of Jena-Auerstadt in 1806 at the hands of the forces of dynamic Napoleonic France. The catastrophe led to a brief period of liberal reforms which partially modernised the army without seriously disturbing the social order. The canton system was replaced by what was heralded as patriotic universal military service in 1814, but the aristocracy reasserted its hold on the officer corps and the militarisation of society continued unabated once Napoleon had been defeated.

Büsch’s views proved highly controversial and were rejected by the still largely conservative German historical establishment in the 1950s, delaying the publication of his thesis by a decade. However, when it first appeared in 1962 it coincided with a wider trend in historical revisionism which sought not to explain the Nazi era as an aberration in an otherwise blameless German past, but as the direct culmination of earlier militarism. Rather than only briefly departing from the European norm in 1933-45, Germany now seemed to have been heading in the wrong direction since the early eighteenth century.

Büsch’s explanation of what he termed ‘the origins of German social militarisation’ fitted so well with the wider assumptions of the ‘wrong turn’ theory that no one has seriously questioned it until comparatively recently. Improved access to the archives of the former GDR after German reunification in 1991 has been instrumental in this reappraisal since these contain material relating to the feudal heartlands of Brandenburg and Pomerania. New research has incorporated different methodologies, including historical anthropology and detailed ‘micro-historical studies’ of individual Junker estates. A greater readiness to compare Prussia to other German territories has also been important. Even by 1800 the Hohenzollern monarchy still only contained a fifth of the inhabitants of the Holy Roman Empire: clearly German history cannot be written simply by generalising from the Prussian experience.

Taken together, these findings reveal a very different picture of the relationship of army and society in old regime Prussia than presented by Büsch. In purely technical military terms, Prussia now appears less innovative than once thought. Key elements of the canton system like the practice of enrolling, furlough and assigning recruitment districts to individual regiments were all in use in other German territories, in some cases decades before their introduction in Prussia. Moreover, Prussia was not uniquely militarised as many smaller territories including Hessen-Kassel, Munster and even tiny Schaumburg-Lippe maintained more troops in proportion to their populations.

Perhaps more significantly, the core assumptions behind the social militarisation thesis have been undermined and there is little evidence that serfdom and canton recruitment were necessarily mutually-reinforcing systems. Conscription was implemented throughout the Prussian monarchy, including in towns and areas like the Westphalian enclaves where serfdom and Junker manorial agriculture were not practised. More crucially, Junkers were rarely captains of their own serfs. Even in East Prussia, bastion of feudal Junkerdom, locally-born noblemen made up only half of the captains of regiments stationed in that province, while elsewhere the proportion could be as low as ten per cent. Being a native of that province  did not mean one necessarily held land there. Many aristocratic officers were landless while those who still had estates generally had them outside the canton of their own regiment. Indeed, this was a necessity since tying officer appointments to only particular groups of estate owners would have rendered any kind of promotions and personnel policy impossible.

Far from militarising society, the practice of discharging conscripts for most of each year partly civilianised the army which assumed many of the characteristics of a militia, despite the fact that Frederick William abolished the Prussian militia structure and even banned the use of the word Miliz in 1713. By regulating conscription, the canton system also made recruitment more predictable and easier to bear by the population. The internal administration of the canton was largely determined by the civilian settlement pattern of individual ‘hearths’ and communities which were permitted some role in the selection of recruits. Though obliged to serve for life if drafted, many conscripts were discharged early if others of a more suitable stature became available. All were permitted to return home for most of the year, enabling something approaching a ‘normal’ life despite military service. Soldiers retained their own homes and a relatively large proportion were allowed to marry, factors which gave the system considerable stability and discouraged desertion. The rules for surveillance and supervision by the military and civil authorities, though strict on paper, were not completely enforceable in practice and were open to manipulation from below as well as abuse from above. Some Junkers even connived at draft dodging to prevent the loss of valuable workers while the army’s interest in preserving a pool of healthy recruits acted as a break on the excesses of tyrannical landlords. It is also telling that a significant minority of cantonists actually volunteered for service, joining the army as full-time paid professionals where they received a guaranteed minimum wage and were free to earn more money as hawkers, servants and building workers in their long off-duty hours. Those who were successful in finding such work could quadruple their basic pay, while those who were not could still supplement their wage by standing extra watch duty while their more entrepreneurial comrades engaged in more profitable civil employment.

These findings should not be taken as an attempt to return to the Hohenzollern legend propagated by nineteenth-century historians like Treitschke. The Prussian monarchy was far from being an impartial, strict yet benevolent guardian of common German interests. Canton conscription represented a heavy burden with at least five per cent of potential recruits serving in peacetime and double that number in war. Though service could be accommodated by those it took, it hardly offered a comfortable life: neither conscripts nor professional Prussian soldiers received a pay rise between 1713 and 1799! Frederick the Great’s brilliant strategy may have ensured his country’s survival during the Seven Years’ War against impossible odds, but his battle tactics demanded a heavy price. Over 180,000 Prussian servicemen died in the conflict in addition to perhaps as much as ten per cent of the civil population. The army served the crown whose policies the bulk of the population had no say in determining and with which many, particularly the new Polish subjects acquired after 1772, could not identify.

Nevertheless, the recent research does raise questions about the degree of continuity between eighteenth-century conditions and subsequent German militarism. The aggressive militarism after 1871 has been regarded as a product of the marriage brokered by Bismarck of the old Prussian tradition represented by the Hohenzollern dynasty and Junker aristocracy with liberal capitalists and the big industrialists like the arms manufacturer Friedrich Alfred Krupp (1854-1902). Continuity with the eighteenth century was sustained by the resilience of the old regime which rode out the storms of Napoleonic defeat in 1806 and the Reform Era of 1807-14 and survived the violent socio-economic change unleashed by rapid industrialisation by introducing sham democracy after 1871 and pursuing increasingly reckless diversionary strategies such as Kaiser Wilhelm’s Weltpolitik bid for colonial empire and, ultimately, launching world war in 1914.

Like all teleological arguments, this is seductively persuasive but flawed in the light of the recent research into eighteenth-century Prussia. The lines of continuity, though surely still present, now seem less clear or straightforward and Frederick the Great no longer appears the direct antecedent of Kaiser Wilhelm, let alone Hitler. The eighteenth century nonetheless left a fateful legacy, but it was not the fabled canton system. The army did enjoy unusually high social prestige in Prussia – something that was deliberately fostered by the crown as part of its efforts to reconcile the Junkers to service in the officer corps. Prussia also witnessed a new kind of militarised patriotism which first flowered in the Seven Years’ War and intensified with the experience of the ‘War of Liberation’ against Napoleonic France 1813-14. This re-evaluated the soldier’s tragic death on the field of slaughter as the hero’s glorious sacrifice for the fatherland. Significantly, this fatherland was no longer defined in terms of the decentralised, pacific, non-aligned and cosmopolitan Holy Roman Empire, but increasingly by reference to blood, soil, language and Protestantism.

However, this was not yet the exclusively reactionary, xenophobic nationalism associated with the Wilhelmine and Nazi eras which, in retrospect now appears more the product of the mid-nineteenth century experience. It was only the experience of revolution, especially that of 1848 when Prussian troops fired on crowds in Berlin and other cities, that heightened consciousness of the army as pillar of an increasingly obsolete social and political order. Additionally, the short and spectacularly successful wars of German unification in 1866 and 1871 left a very different memory of martial conflict than the prolonged bloodletting and near disaster of the Seven Years’ War or Frederick the Great’s last military engagement, the inglorious ‘Potato War’ of 1778-79 against Austria when deserters exceeded battle casualties by a factor of ten to one. It was these factors, rather than the experience of the eighteenth century, that conditioned the militarism that was to have such fateful consequences for Europe after 1914.

  • Peter H. Wilson is Reader in Early Modern European History at the University of Sunderland and the author of Absolutism in Central Europe (Routledge, 2000)

Posted by: Alyssa Zint


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