Iron Kingdom:
The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947

Christopher Clark

Harvard University Press 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2009
In 1947 the Allied occupation authorities abolished the state of Prussia, "which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany". The reality was rather more complex than that, however, and in Iron Kingdom Christopher Clark traces a history of the Prussian state, going back to the Hohenzollern purchase of the electorate of Brandenburg in 1417 but starting in earnest with the Thirty Years War.

Clark's approach is a mix of narrative history and background, with nicely chunked thematic subsections within chronological chapters making for easy reading. The narrative covers diplomatic and military events, but is not continuous — it leaps from the battle of Leipzig to Waterloo, for example. Instead Clark organises his account around key events. Frederick the Great's 1740 decision to annex Silesia, for example, was a pivot around which the diplomacy of the following decades revolved. The shock of the 1806 defeats at Jena and Auerstadt led to many changes, including the use of Landwehr and "free corps" volunteers and a rise in the importance of popular opinion. And there were recurring themes, such as Prussia's geopolitical weakness and the need for a foreign policy that balanced neutrality with commitment, conflicts between fathers and sons, and stresses between Prussia's component regions and with a broader Germany. The central unifying thread remains the state.

There is no attempt at a comprehensive social or economic history — which would be better handled in any case at either smaller scales or larger ones — but topics such as towns, the landed nobility, peasants and landlords, gender, industry, religious conflicts and the Jewish Enlightenment are all covered. There is also consideration of the role of historiography and historical awareness, of the way "the story of the Prussian state is also the story of the story of the Prussian state".

Clark has a magisterial grasp of his subject and adroitly mixes detail and incident with broader argument and analysis. And Iron Kingdom offers plenty of variety while remaining focused enough to maintain momentum.

January 2009

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%T Iron Kingdom
%S The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947
%A Clark, Christopher
%I Harvard University Press
%D 2006
%O hardcover, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9780674023857
%P 776pp