Wednesday 9 March 2011
Not long before it sank into the sands of time the German Democratic Republic, the old communist pseudo-state created out of the post-war Soviet zone of occupation, decided that it really needed to root itself in history. The people’s state, in other words, tried to graft itself on to the people’s affections by discovering a tradition, an honourable and identifiable past.
The Third Reich was clearly out of the question and the Weimar Republic problematic, so back and back they went. The Second Reich, the adolescent empire of Kaiser Bill, may have been better than what came after, though not by much.
Onwards, ever onwards, through successively disappointing layers until the old pre-unification state of Prussia, formally abolished in 1947, emerged in the light. That was to be the tradition, not just Prussia but Frederick the Great, the very icon of Prussian militarism, was the new avatar, right up there with Karl Marx, history’s oddest couple.
East Germany has gone but Prussia lives, undergoing a second revival in the bold new Germany, uncertain about its future and anxious about its past. It’s such an odd thing to be a communist or a conservative in Germany, for so long a nation without memory, without pride in the past, without a proper sense of place.
It’s almost impossible to get over the ruinous colossus of Hitler, strewn across the path, other than by a Prussian route. After all, it was the Prussians in the military who offered some spark of honour in the bungled Bomb Plot of July, 1944.
Other icons are emerging, notably Luise, queen consort to Frederick William III, Prussia’s very own Queen of Hearts, famous for her courage in trying to save the country from a vengeful Napoleon after the defeat at Jena in 1806. She was among other women featured in Preussens Eros – Preussens Musen (Prussia’s Eros – Prussia’s Muses), an exhibition which opened in the old garrison town of Potsdam last September, dedicated to those who demonstrated strength in times of crisis.
There is more than nostalgia at work here in this reengagement with history. The Germans have been lied to so often by politicians drawing on the fear of past sins. It’s not that long ago that Helmut Kohl, the former Chancellor, was absurdly telling the nation that the only alternative to monetary union was a Europe at risk of war, a point made by Roger Boyes in the latest issue of Prospect magazine.
It’s difficult to believe that he could get away with such abject nonsense. Just imagine the ridicule that would greet a British politician who said that the only alternative to abolishing the pound would be war! But for a nation fearful of its militant past, fearful of history, such a Jeremiah-like warning clearly had a certain persuasive power.
Not any longer. A fresh appraisal of aspects of the past has been encouraged by concerns about the future, concerns about the very existence of Germany as a nation, concerns about the validity of the Euro-zone, about European policy as a whole. Last year Thilo Sarazzin, a former member of the executive board of the Deutsche Bundesbank and a socialist politician, published Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany abolishes itself), raising serious concerns over immigration policy and German identity. The book has been a huge success.
This comes on top of the new Prussian pride, which, in addition to exhibitions and books, is seeing the reconstruction of the old Berlin palace of the Hohenzollern princes, destroyed by the communists after 1945. The crown jewels of the old monarchy are also being returned to the Charlottenburg Palace. Meanwhile the call has gone out for the remains of the last Kaiser, buried in Holland, to be reinterred in his native land.
I can see so many positive aspects in this Prussian revival, not just for Germans but for all the peoples of Europe. Nations can only exist with a proper sense of who they are, where they have been and where they are going. Nations can only exist with active and committed citizens. The cosmopolitan idea, the idea that people can be managed like children by lying politician, by technocrats and by civil servants, the wretched ideal of the wretched European Union, is not enough; it could never be enough. Prussia as an ideal has so much positive value; a land not just of soldiers but of thinkers; the land not just of Frederick the Great but of Immanuel Kant.