Tuesday, 22 January 2013

iron kingdom

The iron kingdom of the title is not Essex, which is thawing out quite nicely, despite the continued doom-laden weather predictions with today's lunchtime news.  It is Prussia.  My auto-didactic long march through Iron Kingdom: the rise and downfall of Prussia 1600-1947 has finally reached page 688, The End.  Prussia was dissolved as a nation, and history came to a stop.

History was dreadfully badly taught at all the schools I attended, when it was taught at all.  At infants school we did the hypocaust.  Underfloor central heating, Roman style.  I don't remember any history being taught at the convent school.  Aged eleven to thirteen, history lessons consisted of being read facts and dates about the voyages of Columbus, and Acts of Parliament pertaining to women's property rights and the female franchise, which we were required to write down in notebooks using a system of abbreviations of our own devising.  The notebooks were then marked for neatness and comprehensibility.  I gave up history and did geography for O level.

When I met the Systems Administrator the SA was astounded that anybody could know so little history, let alone someone who had been to an academically selective private school, and Christmases and birthdays for the past thirty years have been taken as opportunities to try and remedy the deficiency.  After three decades my realms of historical ignorance are still practically boundless, and so it didn't have to be the Prussians this time round.  I've still got most of the history of north and south America to tackle from Columbus onwards (and I'm pretty shaky on Columbus).  I'm extremely vague about most places east of Europe, and indeed most of Europe, and my knowledge of England in the eighteenth century is a blur of Lunar Men, Queen Caroline, and Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, with a tiny bit of architecture thrown in.  However, I became curious about Prussia.

My first German enthusiasm was for the Hanseatic League, after being sent on an educational trip around the Baltic aged fifteen.  Since I have still not managed to track down a good book on the subject it remains a hazy area of interest.  A couple of years ago I surprised myself by reading and enjoying Buddenbrooks, saga of a merchant family in the former Hanseatic city of Lubeck, which further piqued my interest in the Baltic fringe, and the religious and cultural gulf between north and south Germany.  Then I discovered the semi-autobiographical writings of Sybille Bedford, born Freiin Sybille Aleid Elsa von Schoenebeck on an impoverished noble estate outside Berlin.  An uncle rejected military service, with catastrophic and brutal results.  Gunter Grass's Peeling the Onion had me scratching my head over the relationship between Danzig, city of his birth, and the surrounding countryside, which seemed neither wholly German nor Polish.

Curiosity whipped up by novels and memoirs will only get you so far, and last year I bought Max Egremont's Forgotten Land: Journeys among the ghosts of East Prussia.  It was interesting and I'd recommend it to anyone who has a thing about Prussia, but it is not a history as such.  Instead it is a series of encounters, interwoven with stories of figures from history and fragments of myth.  It gives you a vivid flavour, but nothing approaching a coherent narrative.  Cue the SA to step forward (it may have been last birthday rather than Christmas) with a proper history.

Iron Kingdom told me quite a few of the things I wanted to know.  There are a lot of facts and dates packed into the 688 pages.  You start off with a small kingdom in north east Europe, not blessed with great natural resources and hemmed in on both sides by powerful neighbours, and follow how, with a combination of judicious alliances, military action and frantic fence-sitting, it manages to annexe more and more of the surrounding teritories until it is a European power.  This is slightly difficult to keep track of at times, partly because Christopher Clark doesn't always follow a strictly linear narrative and tends to loop around in time, and because it really does make it more confusing that almost every King is called Frederick.  You get a lot about constitutional developments, which are not easy to grasp from a starting point of knowing practically nothing about the Holy Roman Empire.  You get very little economic history, presumably because at 688 pages it is already long enough and there wasn't room.  I would have liked a little more myself.  Starting from a position of thin infertile soil and no mineral wealth, how exactly did Prussia manage to become so powerful?  Surely military organisation will only get you so far?

It gets a 4 star review on Amazon.  I deliberately avoided reading any reviews until I'd typed the last paragraph.  Some readers loved it and gave it five stars, but there is a long tail of those who didn't.  A common criticism is that military actions are glossed over.  As a non military historian I was quite happy not to get detailed battle descriptions, but even so I was surprised that the Seven Years War was dealt with in a couple of pages.  Some think the build-up to the First World War is skipped over too quickly, and they are probably right.  By that stage of the 688 pages I was beginning to flag.  Overall it is worth the effort, but only if you have a definite bee in your bonnet about the history of Germany.

Addendum  There is a strange postscript.  Kaiser William at the end of the war fled to the Netherlands, where he lived out his days on a small country estate outside Utrecht, called Doorn.  When I read that it rang bells, and I recalled that a month or two previously I'd heard a mention of Doorn on the radio.  After the Kaiser's death the Huis Doorn passed to the Netherlands government, and was run as a museum, a preserved slice of Prussian life in exile.  At the end of last year the Dutch government voted to half the funding given to Doorn, as part of their austerity measures, on the grounds that it was not Dutch enough.  There is no proposal yet to sell the house or disperse its contents, but historians are afraid that once it is no longer open to the public, that will be the next step.  Information on the topic is hard to find if you don't read Dutch or German, since the Huis Doorn's English language website is sketchy, and none of the UK broadsheets seem to have picked up on the story so I haven't found a nice archived page from the Telegraph.  Instead my knowledge of the future facing the Huis Doorn is pieced together from chat rooms of unknown reliability.  I can see that historic relicts of the Kaiser are unlikely to attract much popular support from most quarters, but it seems mad if as Europeans we can't find the extra £200,000 per annum to keep the museum together and open, the year before the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War.

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