28 February 2012

Prussian Patriotism during the Napoleonic Wars

From: Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark (Penguin, 2007),
pp. 374-376, 379, 386 (Kindle Locs. 7131-7182, 7231-7238, 7364-7376):
The military reformers aimed above all to harness the war effort to the patriotic enthusiasm of the Prussian population. In this, too, they were only partly successful. Not all subjects of the Prussian Crown were equally moved by patriotic appeals. In parts of Silesia and West Prussia, the raising of Landwehr regiments prompted many to flee across the border into Russian-controlled Poland. Many merchants, landowners and innkeepers clung to the old system of exemptions and begged the authorities to overlook their sons or presented medical certificates of dubious authenticity suggesting that these were too sickly to serve. Patriotism was not only regionally, but also socially uneven. Educated males – high-school pupils, university students and men with academic qualifications – were over-represented in the volunteer contingents. They constituted 2 per cent of the population, but 12 per cent of volunteers. Even more remarkable are the figures for artisans, who accounted for 7 per cent of the population as a whole but 41 per cent of volunteers. Conversely, the peasants who made up nearly three-quarters of the kingdom’s population supplied only 18 per cent of the volunteers, and most of these were either landless day-labourers or free farmers from outside the East-Elbian agrarian heartland of the Prussian state. The social constituency for patriotic activism had expanded greatly since the days of the Seven Years War, but it remained a predominantly urban phenomenon.

Within these limitations, the Prussian public responded on an unprecedented scale to the government’s call for help. The ‘gold for iron’ fund-raising campaign brought in 6.5 million thalers in donations and there was a flood of Prussian volunteers for the Landwehr and the free corps units of the volunteer riflemen. For the first time, young men from the Jewish communities, now legally eligible for military service and eager to demonstrate their patriotic gratitude for emancipation, flocked to join the colours, either in free corps or Landwehr units. There was a Jewish fund-raising campaign, in the course of which rabbis donated Kaddish cups and Torah-roll ornaments for the war effort.

It was a mark of the modernity and inclusiveness of this war that women played a prominent role in supporting the state through organized charitable activity. For the first time in its history the dynasty expressly enlisted the support of its female subjects: the ‘Appeal to the Women of the Prussian State’, signed by twelve women of the Prussian royal family and published in March 1813, announced the foundation of a Women’s Association for the Good of the Fatherland and urged ‘noble-minded wives and daughters of all ranks’ to assist in the war effort by donating jewellery, cash, raw materials and labour. Between 1813 and 1815, some 600 women’s associations were created for these purposes. Here too, Jewish women were a conspicuous sub-group. Rahel Levin organized a circle of wealthy women friends to coordinate an ambitious fund-raising campaign and travelled to Prague in the summer of 1813 to oversee the creation of a medical mission dedicated to the care of the Prussian wounded. ‘I am in touch with our commissariat and our staff surgeon,’ she wrote to her friend and future husband Karl Varnhagen. ‘I have a great deal of lint, bandages, rags, stockings, shirts; arrange for meals in several districts of the city; attend personally to thirty or forty fusiliers and soldiers every day; discuss and inspect everything.’

Nothing better encapsulates the demotic quality of Prussian wartime mobilization than the new decorations created to honour distinguished service to the fatherland. The Iron Cross, designed and introduced on the initiative of the monarch, was the first Prussian decoration to be awarded to all ranks. ‘The soldier [should be] on equal terms with the general, since people will know when they see a general and a soldier with the same decoration, that the general has earned it through merit in his capacity, whereas the soldier can only have earned it within his own narrower sphere…’ Here, for the first time, was an acknowledgement that courage and initiative were virtues to be found alike in all classes of the people – the king personally overrode a proposal from his staff to confine the use of the decoration to the ranks of sergeant-major and below. The new medal, formally introduced on 10 March 1813, was an austere object – a small Maltese cross fashioned in cast iron and decorated only with a sprig of oak leaves, the king’s initials surmounted by a crown and the year of the campaign. Iron was chosen for both practical and symbolic reasons. Precious metals were in short supply and Berlin happened to possess excellent local foundries specializing in the decorative use of cast iron. Equally important was the metaphorical resonance of iron: as the king observed in a remarkable memorandum of February 1813, this was a ‘time of iron’ for the Prussian state, in which ‘only iron and determination’ would bring redemption. In an extraordinary gesture, the king ordered that all other decorations were to be suspended for the duration of the war and thereby transformed the Iron Cross into a campaign memorial. After the allies had reached Paris, the king ordered that the Iron Cross was to be incorporated into all Prussian flags and ensigns that had remained in service throughout the war. From its very inception, the Iron Cross was marked out to become a Prussian lieu de mémoire.

On 3 August 1814, a complementary decoration was introduced for women who had made a distinguished contribution to the war effort. Its presiding spirit was the dead Queen Luise, well on her way to secular canonization as a Prussian Madonna. The Order of Luise resembled the Iron Cross in shape, but was enamelled in Prussian blue and mounted in the centre with a medallion bearing the initial ‘L’. Eligible were Prussian women, born and naturalized, of all social stations, whether married or single. Among the women honoured for charitable and fund-raising work was Amalia Beer, mother of the composer Giacomo Meyer-beer and one of the wealthiest women of Berlin’s Jewish elite. The king saw to it that the medal, usually cast in the shape of a cross, was modified so as not to offend her religious sensibility.

The creation of the Luisenorden reflected a broader public understanding of the forces mobilized in war than had been possible in the eighteenth century. For the first time, the voluntary initiatives of civil society – and particularly of its female members – were celebrated as integral to the state’s military success. One consequence of this was a new emphasis on the activism of women. But this inclusiveness was attended by a heightened emphasis on gender difference.


The Wars of Liberation were wars of governments and monarchs, of dynastic alliances, rights and claims, in which the chief concern was to re-establish the balance of power in Europe. But they also involved – to an extent unprecedented in Prussia’s history – militias and politically motivated volunteers. Of just under 290,000 officers and men mobilized in Prussia, 120,565 served in units of the Landwehr. In addition to the Landwehr regiments, which generally served under officers of the Prussian army, there were a variety of free corps, units of voluntary riflemen recruited from Prussia and other German states. Unlike their colleagues in the regular army, they swore oaths of loyalty not to the King of Prussia, but to the German fatherland. By the end of hostilities, free corps such as the famous Lützow Rangers accounted for 12.5 per cent of the Prussian armed forces, about 30,000 men in all. The intense patriotism of many volunteers was tied up with potentially subversive visions of an ideal German or Prussian political order.


The intimate tension between Prussian patriotism and German nationalism contained a threat and a promise. The threat was that nationalist agitation would become a force capable of challenging dynastic authority across the German states, that it would substitute a new horizontal culture of loyalties and affinities for the hierarchical order of the ancien régime and thereby sweep away the particularist heritage that had endowed Prussia with a distinctive history and significance. The promise was that Prussia might find a way of harnessing national enthusiasms to its own interests, of riding the nationalist wave without surrendering its particularist identity and institutions. In the short term, the threat overshadowed the promise as Frederick William III joined with other sovereigns in suppressing nationalist ‘demagoguery’ and silencing public memory of the war of volunteers. But in the longer term, as we shall see, Prussian political leaders became adept at discerning and exploiting the synergies between nationalist aspirations and territorial interest. In the process, the divided memory of the post-war years made way for an irenic synthesis in which popular and dynastic elements were juxtaposed and seen as complementary. Purged of its political ambiguities, the Prussian war against Napoleon would ultimately be refashioned – however incongruously – as a mythical war of German national liberation. Gymnastics, the Iron Cross, the cult of Queen Luise, even the battle of Jena would all mutate with time into German national symbols, legitimizing Prussian claims to political leadership within the community of German states.

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