Prussia: a ‘kingdom of shreds and patches’

From: Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark (Penguin, 2007), Kindle Loc. 8097-8136 (pp. 428ff):

Prussia was therefore less juridically homogeneous in 1840 than it had been in 1813. It is worth emphasizing this fragmentation, because Prussia has often been perceived as the very model of a centralized state. Yet the thrust of the Stein municipal reforms had been precisely to devolve power upon what became a widely admired system of urban self-government. Even the more conservative Revised Municipal Law introduced in Westphalia in 1831 provided the towns with more autonomy than they had enjoyed under the Napoleonic system. Throughout the post-war era, the organs of the central state adopted a deferential attitude to the grandees of the Prussian provinces, and the provincial elites remained strongly aware of their distinctive identities, especially in the peripheral areas of east and west. This tendency was amplified by the fact that whereas each province had its own diet, the kingdom as such had none. One effect of the constitutional settlement of 1823 was thus to magnify the significance of the provinces at the expense of the Prussian commonwealth. East Prussia was not ‘merely a province’, one visitor to Königsberg was told in 1851, but a Land in its own right. Prussia was in this sense a quasi-federal system.

A devolved, pragmatic approach to government went hand in hand with an implicit acceptance of cultural diversity. Early nineteenth-century Prussia was a linguistic and cultural patchwork. The Poles of West Prussia, Posen and Silesia accounted for the largest linguistic minority; in the southern districts of East Prussia, the Masurians spoke various agrarian dialects of Polish; the Kashubians of the Danzig hinterland spoke another. Until the mid nineteenth century, the Dutch language was still widely used in the schools of the former Duchy of Kleve. In the Walloon districts of Eupen-Malmédy – a small east-Belgian territory that was transferred to Prussia in 1815 – French remained the language of schools, courts and administration until 1876. The ‘Philipponen’, communities of Old Believers who settled in Masuria as refugees from Russia in 1828–32, spoke Russian – traces of their distinctive wooden churches can still be seen in the area today. There were communities of Czechs in Upper Silesia, Sorbs in the Cottbus district, and speakers of the ancient Slavic dialect of the Wends scattered across villages in the Spreewald near Berlin. Eking out an existence on the long spit of Baltic coastal land known as the Kurische Nehrung were the Kuren, inhabitants of one of the barest and most melancholy landscapes of northern Europe. These hardy fishermen spoke a dialect of Latvian and were known for supplementing their monotonous diet with the flesh of crows they caught and killed with a bite to the head. Some areas, such as the district of Gumbinnen in East Prussia, were trilingual, with substantial communities of Masurian, Lithuanian and German speakers living in close proximity.

Prussian policy in the eastern provinces had traditionally been to treat these settlements as ‘colonies’ with their own distinctive cultures; indeed, the Prussian administration helped to consolidate provincial vernaculars by supporting them as the vehicle of religious instruction and elementary education. Protestant clerical networks were also important. They disseminated hymn books, Bibles and tracts in a range of local languages and offered bi-lingual services in minority language areas. The first Lithuanian-language periodical in the kingdom, Nusidavimai, was a missionary journal edited by a German-speaking pastor working among the Lithuanians. German-speaking Prussians, such as the statesman and scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt and the Königsberg theology professor Martin Ludwig Rhesa, played a crucial role in establishing Lithuanian and its folk heritage as an object of wider cultural interest. Not until 1876 did a general law define German as the official language of all parts of Prussia.

Prussia thus remained, in the words of a Scottish traveller who toured the Hohenzollern provinces in the 1840s, a ‘kingdom of shreds and patches’. Prussia, Samuel Laing observed, ‘has, in ordinary parlance, only a geographical or political meaning, denoting the Prussian government, or the provinces it governs – not a moral or social meaning. The Prussian nation is a combination of words rarely heard, of ideas never made […]’ Laing’s comment, though hostile, was insightful. What exactly did it mean to be ‘Prussian’? The Prussia of the restoration era was not a ‘nation’ in the sense of a people defined and bound together by a common ethnicity. There was not, and never had been, a Prussian cuisine. Nor was there a specifically Prussian folklore, language, dialect, music or form of dress (leaving aside the uniforms of the military). Prussia was not a nation in the sense of a community sharing a common history. Moreover, ‘Prussianness’ had somehow to define itself on grounds that had not already been occupied by the powerful competing ideology of German nationalism. The result was a curiously abstract and fragmented sense of identity.

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Filed under Germany, language, nationalism, Poland, religion

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