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.

Prussian Reactions to the French Revolution

From: Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark (Penguin, 2007), p. 285 (Kindle Loc. 5546-5584):
Tensions between the two German rivals had risen steadily during the 1780s. In 1785, Frederick II had taken charge of a coalition of German princes opposed to the annexation of Bavaria by the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II. In 1788, the Emperor had gone to war against the Turks, prompting fears that massive Habsburg acquisitions in the Balkans would give Austria the upper hand over her Prussian rival. But in the summer and autumn of 1789, as Austrian forces pushed back the armies of Sultan Selim III, a chain of revolts broke out across the peripheral territories of the Habsburg crown – Belgium, Tyrol, Galicia, Lombardy and Hungary. Frederick William II, a vain and impulsive man who was determined to live up to the reputation of his illustrious uncle, did his best to exploit the discomfort of the Austrians. The Belgians were encouraged to secede from Habsburg rule and the Hungarian dissidents were urged to rise up against Vienna – there was even talk of an independent Hungarian monarchy to be ruled by a Prussian prince.

Seen against this background, the revolution in France was welcome news, for there was good reason to hope that a new, ‘revolutionary’ French administration would put an end to the Franco-Austrian alliance. As the Prussians well knew, the alliance – along with its dynastic personification, Queen Marie Antoinette – was deeply unpopular with the Austrophobe patriots of the revolutionary movement. Berlin therefore courted the various revolutionary parties in the hope of building an anti-Habsburg ‘party’ in Paris. The aim was to reverse the diplomatic realignment of 1756, isolate Austria, and put an end to the expansionist plans of Joseph II. When a fully fledged revolution broke out in the prince-bishopric of Liège, a strip of territory right in the middle of Belgium, the Prussians supported the rebels there too, in the hope that the upheaval would spread to the adjacent Austrian-controlled areas.

There was also an ideological dimension to this tentative support for revolutionary upheaval. In 1789, a number of the leading Prussian policy-makers, including the minister responsible for foreign affairs, Count Hertzberg – were personally sympathetic to the aspirations of the revolutionaries. Hertzberg was a man of the enlightenment who deplored the incompetent despotism of the Bourbons in France. He saw Prussian support for the insurrection in Liège as entirely in keeping with the kingdom’s ‘liberal principles’. The envoy entrusted with handling Prussia’s affairs in the prince-bishopric, Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, was an enlightened official and intellectual (not to mention author of the famous tract supporting the emancipation of the Jews); he was a critic of the episcopal regime in Liège and favoured a progressive, constitutional solution to the dispute between the prince-bishop and the insurrectionists of the Third Estate.

It was above all the threat of a Prussian-backed revolution in Hungary that persuaded Joseph’s successor, Leopold II, to seek an understanding with Prussia. Leopold, a wise and temperate figure, saw at once the folly of pursuing new conquests in the Ottoman Balkans while his hereditary possessions disintegrated behind his back. In March 1790, he despatched a friendly letter to Berlin, opening the door for the negotiations that culminated in the Convention of Reichenbach of 27 July 1790. The two German powers agreed – after tense discussions – to pull back from the brink of war and put their differences behind them. The Austrians undertook to end their costly Turkish war on moderate terms (i.e. without annexations) and the Prussians promised to stop fomenting rebellions within the Habsburg monarchy.

The Convention looked innocuous, but it was more significant than it seemed. The era of bitter Prusso-Austrian antagonism that had structured the political affairs of the Holy Roman Empire since the invasion of Silesia in 1740 was now over, at least for a time, and the two German powers could pursue their interests in concert, rather than at each other’s expense. Following an oscillatory pattern that recalled the days of the Great Elector, Frederick William II abandoned his secret efforts to secure an alliance with Paris and switched to a policy of war against revolutionary France. Foreign Minister Hertzberg and his liberal views fell into disfavour; he was later dismissed. An important role in the new diplomacy went to Frederick William’s trusted adviser and confidant, Johann Rudolf von Bischoffwerder, an exponent of war against the revolution, who was despatched to Vienna in February and June–July 1791. The resulting Vienna Convention of 25 July 1791 laid the foundations for an Austro-Prussian alliance.

The first fruit of the Austro-Prussian rapprochement was a remarkable piece of gesture politics. The Declaration of Pillnitz, issued jointly by the Austrian Emperor and the Prussian king on 27 August 1791, was not a plan of action as such, but rather a statement of principled opposition to the Revolution.

Crowning the First King of Prussia, 1701

From: Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark (Penguin, 2007), pp. 68, 70, 73 (Kindle Locs. 1574-1601, 1609-1619, 1672-1701):
In terms of the proportion of territorial wealth consumed, the coronation of 1701 must surely be the most expensive single event in the history of Brandenburg-Prussia. Even by the standards of an age that revelled in courtly ceremonial as an expression of power, the Prussian coronation was unusually splendid. The government levied a special crown tax to cover its expenditures, but this brought in a total of only 500,000 thalers – three-fifths of this amount were paid out for the queen’s crown alone, and the royal crown, fashioned of precious metal and studded over its entire surface with diamonds, accounted for the rest and more besides. Reconstructing the total cost of the festivities is difficult, since no integrated account survives, but it has been estimated that around 6 million thalers were spent in all for the ceremony and attendant festivities, about twice the annual revenues of the Hohenzollern administration.

The coronation was singular in another sense too. It was entirely custom-made: an invention designed to serve the purposes of a specific historical moment. The designer was Frederick I himself, who was responsible for every detail, not only of the new royal insignia, the secular rituals and the liturgy in the castle church, but also for the style and colour of the garments worn by the chief participants. There was a staff of experts to advise on monarchical ceremonial. Foremost among these was the poet Johann von Besser who served as master of ceremonies at Frederick’s court from 1690 until the end of the reign and possessed a wide-ranging knowledge of English, French, German, Italian and Scandinavian courtly traditions. But the key decisions always fell to the Elector.

The ceremony that resulted was a unique and highly self-conscious amalgam of borrowings from historical European coronations, some recent, others of older vintage. Frederick designed his coronation not only with a view to its aesthetic impact, but also in order to broadcast what he regarded as the defining features of his kingly status. The form of the crown, which was not an open band, but a domed metal structure closed at the top, symbolized the all-embracing power of a monarch who encompassed in his own person both secular and spiritual sovereignty. The fact, moreover, that the king, in contrast to the prevailing European practice, crowned himself in a separate ceremony before being anointed at the hands of his clergy, pointed up the autonomous character of his office, its independence from any worldly or spiritual authority (save that of God himself). A description of the coronation by Johann Christian Lünig, a renowned contemporary expert on the courtly ‘science of ceremony’, explained the significance of this step.
Kings who accept their kingdom and sovereignty from the Estates usually only take up the purple mantle, the crown and sceptre and mount the throne after they have been anointed: [… ] but His Majesty [Friedrich I], who has not received His Kingdom through the assistance of the Estates or of any other [party], had no need whatever of such a handing-over, but rather received his crown after the manner of the ancient kings from his own foundation.
Given the recent history of Brandenburg and Ducal Prussia, the importance of these symbolic gestures is obvious enough. The Great Elector’s struggle with the Prussian Estates and particularly the city of Königsberg was still a memory with the power to disturb – it is a telling detail that the Prussian Estates were never consulted over the coronation and were informed of the forthcoming festivity only in December 1700.


One of the reasons for adopting the title ‘King in Prussia’ – an unusual title that occasioned some amusement at the European courts – was that it freed the new crown from any Polish claims pertaining to ‘royal’ Prussia, which was still within the Polish Commonwealth. In negotiations with Vienna, particular care was expended to ensure that the wording of any agreement would make it clear that the Emperor was not ‘creating’ (creieren) the new royal title, but merely ‘acknowledging’ (agnoszieren) it. A much disputed passage of the final agreement between Berlin and Vienna paid lip service to the special primacy of the Emperor as the senior monarch of Christendom, but also made it clear that the Prussian Crown was an entirely independent foundation, for which the Emperor’s approval was a courtesy rather than an obligation.

In 1701, as so often before, Berlin owed its good fortune to international developments. The Emperor would probably not have cooperated in the Elector’s elevation had it not been for the fact that he stood in urgent need of Brandenburg’s support. The epochal struggle between Habsburg and Bourbon was about to enter a new and bloody phase, as a coalition of European powers gathered to oppose French designs to place a grandson of Louis XIV on the vacant Spanish throne.


Frederick I was not the only European ruler to seek elevation to kingly status at this time – the Grand Duke of Tuscany had acquired the right to be addressed as ‘Royal Highness’ in 1691; the same right was acquired during the following years by the dukes of Savoy and Lorraine. More importantly from Berlin’s perspective, a number of rival German dynasties were angling for a royal title during the 1690s. The Elector of Saxony converted to Catholicism in order to get himself elected King of Poland in 1697, and negotiations began at around the same time over the possible succession of the Electoral House of Hanover to the British royal throne. The Bavarians and the Palatine Wittelsbachs were likewise engaged with (ultimately futile) plans to capture a royal title, either by elevation or, in the latter case, by securing a claim to the ‘royal throne of Armenia’. In other words, the coronation of 1701 was no isolated personal caprice, but part of a wave of regalization that was sweeping across the still largely non-regal territories of the Holy Roman Empire and the Italian states at the end of the seventeenth century. Royal title mattered because it still entailed privileged status within the international community. Since the precedence accorded to crowned heads was also observed at the great peace treaties of the era, it was a matter of potentially grave practical importance.

The recent growth of interest in the early modern European courts as political and cultural institutions has heightened our awareness of the functionality of courtly ritual. Courtly festivities had a crucial communicative and legitimating function. As the philosopher Christian Wolff observed in 1721, the ‘common man’, who depended upon his senses rather than his reason, was quite incapable of grasping ‘what the majesty of a king is’. Yet it was possible to convey to him a sense of the power of the monarch by confronting him with ‘things that catch his eye and stir his other senses’. A considerable court and court ceremonies, he concluded, were thus ‘by no means superfluous or reprehensible’.

Courts were also densely interlinked with each other through family diplomatic and cultural ties; they were not only focal points for elite social and political life within each respective territory, but also nodes in an international courtly network. The magnificent celebrations of the coronation anniversary, for example, were observed by numerous foreign visitors, not to speak of the various dynastic relatives and envoys who could always be found at court during the season.

The international resonance of such events within the European court system was further amplified by published official or semi-official accounts, in which scrupulous attention was paid to details of precedence, dress, ceremony and the splendour of the spectacle. The same applied to the elaborately ritualized observances associated with mourning. The orders issued following the death of Queen Sophie Charlotte were not primarily intended to lend expression to the private grief of the bereaved, but rather to send out signals about the weight and importance of the court where the death had occurred. These signals were directed not only to a domestic audience of subjects, but also to other courts, which were expected to mark their acknowledgement of the event by entering into various degrees of mourning. So implicit were these expectations that Frederick I was furious when he discovered that Louis XIV had decided not to put the court at Versailles into mourning on Sophie Charlotte’s account, presumably as a means of conveying his displeasure at Berlin’s pro-Austrian policy in the War of the Spanish Succession. Like the other ceremonies that punctuated life at court, mourning was part of a system of political communication. Seen in this context, the court was an instrument whose purpose was to document the rank of the prince before an international ‘courtly public’.