For the resisters Prussia became a virtual homeland, the focal point for a patriotism that could find no referent in the Third Reich. The charisma of this mythical Prussia was not lost upon the non-Prussians who moved within resistance circles. The Social Democrat Julius Leber, an Alsatian who grew up in Lübeck and was executed on 5 January 1945 for his part in the conspiracy against Hitler, was among those who looked back in admiration at the years when Stein, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst re-established the state ‘in the citizen’s consciousness of freedom’. There was an energetic polarity between the Prussia of Nazi propaganda and that of the civilian and military resistance. Goebbels used Prussian themes to drive home the primacy of loyalty, obedience and will as indispensable aids in Germany’s epic struggle against her enemies. The resisters, by contrast, insisted that these secondary Prussian virtues became worthless as soon as they were severed from their ethical and religious roots. For the Nazis, Yorck was the symbol of an oppressed Germany rising up against foreign ‘tyranny’ – for the resisters he represented a transcendent sense of duty that might even, under certain circumstances, articulate itself in an act of treason. We naturally look more kindly on one of these Prussia-myths than on the other. Yet both were selective, talismanic and instrumental. Precisely because it had become so abstract, so etiolated, ‘Prussiandom’ was up for grabs. It was not an identity, nor even a memory. It had become a catalogue of disembodied mythical attributes whose historical and ethical significance was, and would remain, in contention.
In the end, it was the Nazi view of Prussia that prevailed. The western allies needed no persuading that Nazism was merely the latest manifestation of Prussianism. They could draw on an intellectually formidable tradition of anti-Prussianism that dated back to the outbreak of the First World War. In August 1914, Ramsay Muir, a distinguished liberal activist and holder of the chair of modern history at the University of Manchester, published a widely read study that claimed to examine the ‘historical background’ of the current conflict. ‘It is the result,’ Muir wrote, ‘of a poison which has been working in the European system for more than two centuries, and the chief source of this poison is Prussia.’ In another study published early in the war, William Harbutt Dawson, a social liberal publicist and one of the most influential commentators on German history and politics in early twentieth-century Britain, pointed to the militarizing influence of the ‘Prussian spirit’ within the otherwise benign German nation: ‘this spirit has ever been a hard and immalleable element in the life of Germany; it is still the knot in the oak, the nodule in the softer clay.’
Common to many analyses was the notion that there were in fact two Germanies, the liberal, congenial and pacific Germany of the south and west and the reactionary, militaristic Germany of the north-east. The tensions between the two, it was argued, remained unresolved within the Empire founded by Bismarck in 1871. One of the most sophisticated and influential early analysts of this problem was the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen. In a study of German industrial society published in 1915 and re-issued in 1939, Veblen argued that a lopsided process of modernization had distorted German political culture. ‘Modernism’ had transformed the sphere of industrial organization, but had failed to effect ‘an equally secure and disturbing lodgement in the tissues of the body politic’. The reason for this, Veblen diagnosed, lay in the survival of an essentially pre-modern Prussian ‘territorial state’. The history of this state, he suggested, amounted to a career of more or less uninterrupted aggressive war-making. The consequence was a political culture of extreme servility, for ‘the pursuit of war, being an exercise in the following of one’s leader and execution of arbitrary orders, induces an animus of enthusiastic subservience and unquestioning obedience to authority.’ In such a system, the loyal support of popular sentiment could be maintained only by ‘unremitting habituation [and] discipline sagaciously and relentlessly directed to this end’, and ‘by a system of bureaucratic surveillance and unremitting interference in the private life of subjects’.
Veblen’s account was light on empirical data and supporting evidence, but it was not without theoretical sophistication. It aimed not only to describe but also to explain the supposed deformations of Prussian-German political culture. It was supported, moreover, by an implicit conception of the ‘modern’ in the light of which Prussia could be deemed archaic, anachronistic, only partially modernized. It is striking how much of the substance of the ‘special path’ thesis that would rise to prominence in German historical writing of the late 1960s and 1970s is already anticipated in Veblen’s account. This was no accident – Ralf Dahrendorf, whose synoptic study Society and Democracy in Germany (1968) was one of the foundational texts of the critical school, drew heavily on the American sociologist’s work.
Even the rather cruder accounts that passed for historical analyses of modern Germany during the Second World War often preserved a sense of historical perspective, rather than settling for generalizations about German ‘national character’. Since the seventeenth century, one writer observed in 1941, the ‘old German spirit of conquest’ had been ‘deliberately developed more and more and along the lines of that mentality which is known as “Prussianism” ’. The history of Prussia had been ‘an almost uninterrupted period of forcible expansion, under the iron rule of militarism and absolutist officialism’. Under a harsh regime of compulsory education, in which teachers were recruited from the ranks of former non-commissioned officers, the young were instilled with ‘the typical Prussian obedience’. The rigours of school life were succeeded by a prolonged period in barracks or on active military service. It was here that ‘the German mind received its last coat of varnish. Anything that had not been done by the schools was achieved in the army.’
In the minds of many contemporaries, the link between ‘Prussianism’ and Nazism was obvious. The German émigré Edgar Stern-Rubarth described Hitler – notwithstanding the dictator’s Austrian birth – as ‘the Arch-Prussian’ and declared that ‘the whole structure of his dreamed-of Reich’ was based not only on the material achievements of the Prussian state, but ‘even more on the philosophical foundations of Prussianism’. In a study of German industrial planning published in 1943, Joseph Borkin, an American official who later helped to prepare the case against the giant chemicals combine I. G. Farben at Nuremberg, observed that the political evolution of the Germans had long been retarded by a ruling class of Prussian Junkers who had ‘never been unsaddled by social change’ and concluded that the Prussian ‘Weltanschauung of political and economic world hegemony is the well-spring from which both Hohenzollern imperialism and National Socialism flow’. Like many such accounts, this book drew on a tradition of German critical commentary on Prussian history and German political culture more generally.
It would be difficult to overstate the hold of this scenario of power-lust, servility and political archaism over the imaginations of the policy-makers most concerned with Germany’s post-war fate. In a speech of December 1939, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden observed that ‘Hitler is not so unique as all that. He is merely the latest expression of the Prussian spirit of military domination.’ The Daily Telegraph published a discussion of the speech under the headline ‘Hitler’s Rule is in the Tradition of Prussian Tyranny’ and there were positive comments throughout the tabloid press.134 On the day of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Winston Churchill spoke memorably of the ‘hideous onslaught’ of the Nazi ‘war machine with its clanking, heel-clicking dandified Prussian officers’ and ‘the dull, drilled docile brutish masses of the Hun soldiers plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts’. In an article for the Daily Herald in November 1941, Ernest Bevin, minister of labour in Churchill’s War Cabinet, declared that German preparation for the current war had begun long before the advent of Hitler. Even if one ‘got rid of Hitler, Goering and others’, Bevin warned, the German problem would remain unsolved. ‘It was Prussian militarism, with its terrible philosophy, that had to be got rid of from Europe for all time.’ It followed that the defeat of the Nazi regime itself would not suffice to bring the war to a satisfactory close.