The Blog

The Prussians Are Coming!

Are Germans uber-reacting to the renaming of Berlin-Brandenburg?

12:00 AM, Apr 10, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

FOR THE PAST FEW YEARS, there's been talk in Germany about merging the state of Brandenburg with the city-state of Berlin (imagine a merging of Maryland and the District of Columbia, but not as bad). Most estimates expect the "fusion" of the two entities to take place by 2006. It's a reasonable proposition, since Berlin could benefit from a somewhat more fiscally responsible Brandenburg, while the latter could benefit from all that the nation's capital has to offer. Sure, there's the argument that Berlin, with its economic woes (including a staggering budget deficit), would just be a drag on the surrounding region. But that debate pales in comparison to the one brought up by Alwin Ziel, Brandenburg's Social Affairs minister. Since "Berlin-Brandenburg" is a cumbersome name, Ziel had a better idea: Why don't we call it Prussia?

For those involved in the fusion debate, it was as if someone threw up a grenade. And soon, everyone in the country had an opinion on the matter, sparking a political firestorm over the pros and cons of reviving a name that was abolished in 1947 by the Allies, who called it a "militaristic, reactionary power." Winston Churchill went a bit further, declaring it "the root of all evil." (Yes, evil.) But is it really all that?

Historian Martin Kitchen writes of "the much vaunted Prussian virtues of obedience, frugality, sense of duty, modesty, diligence, and social responsibility." Last year, in an essay for Policy Review, I interviewed then-speaker of the Berlin senate Michael-Andreas Butz, who echoed similar sentiments: "Prussia is a part of our history," he said. "And there's nothing really wrong with Prussian traditions. We are . . . punctual, yes?" It was also by the Edict of Potsdam in 1685 that persecuted French Huguenots were welcomed to Prussia. (Fifteen thousand Huguenots ended up going.)

But then there's that darker side of Prussia. The Economist reminds us that after the Second World War, Prussia was "synonymous with everything repellent in German history: militarism, territorial expansion, arrogance, and domination." "And wasn't it Prussia's elite who, by intriguing against the Weimar republic, helped bring Hitler to power in 1933, provoking a descent into tyranny that drew heavily on Prussian traditions of authoritarianism, obedience thereto and deification of the army?" the magazine asks. Why yes, it was. But the Economist forgets to mention that Prussian royalists were largely responsible for the assassination attempt against Hitler in 1944--the failure of which led to the army's subjugation to the SS.

Still, if you look at the old monuments in Berlin erected prior to 1871, what you see is a tribute to battles, wars, victories--from the Siegessaule victory column to the Brandenburg Gate. In the 1700s, Berlin was basically one giant parade ground--a Prussian utopia, really, where one in five residents was a soldier. And then there were the wars, against practically every one of its neighbors. Even today, the discussion of renaming the new state brings out strong reactions in countries such as Poland, Austria, and even Switzerland: Jean Ziegler, a professor at Geneva University, said, "Among us Swiss, the idea of Prussia continues to stand for militarism, arrogance and expansionism." Don't even think of asking the French.

Or a lot of Germans, for that matter. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is running a series called "Darf Preussen sein?" (Should there be a Prussia?) The responses have been strong, with many of the contributing writers leaning against the return of Prussia. "Preussen vergiftet uns" (Prussia poisons us) is the headline of one essay by Professor Hans-Ulrich Wehler of the University of Bielefeld, while Wolf Jobst Siedler calls it "eine romantische, unrealistiche" idea. Those in favor, such as Tilman Mayer of the University of Munich, envision something of a renaissance, the bringing out of only the best that Prussia exemplified, while leaving its gloomier legacies behind. "Prussia is a name that is known internationally and stands for something special. It is back to the roots of Germany," said Count Carl-Eduard von Bismarck in the London Sunday Times. Yes, Bismarck is the great-great grandson of Otto von Bismarck, former minister-president of Prussia and chancellor of the unified German state. Today's Bismarck, a banker, is running for office as a Christian Democrat. (If he wins and Prussia becomes a state, the French may start massing troops along the Rhine.)