New Prussian patriotism, a remarkable manifestation

98733 1-F40-A2                                                                                         Friedrich II. (der Grosse), Koenig von     Preussen (1740-86), Berlin 24.1.1712 -          Sanssouci bei Potsdam 17.8.1786.         - Bildnis. -                                   Gemaelde, um 1900, von Franz Dudde.       Rastatt, Wehrgeschichtliches Museum.                                                                                       Foto: akg-images

Frederick the Great

The Prussian king’s audacity, his occasionally inspired military leadership, and his sheer dogged determination to survive against overwhelming odds turned him into a hero. In Prussia itself, support for Frederick II was extraordinary, and the King rapidly achieved a degree of personal popularity never experienced by any predecessor.

The outbreak of the war saw the emergence of an astonishing wave of patriotic literature. The poet Christian Ewald von Kleist (1715-1759), a serving officer who died of wounds sustained at Kunersdorf, set the tone with an `Ode to the Prussian Army’ in May 1757. Younger writers soon followed: Karl Wilhelm Ramler (1725-1798), with poems such as `To a Cannon’; Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim (1719-1803), with Preußische Kriegslieder in den Feldzügen 1756 und 1757 von einem Grenadier (`Prussian War Songs of the Campaigns of 1756 and 1757 by a Grenadier’); and a number of others. The patriotic sermons of the Berlin court preacher August Friedrich Wilhelm Sack were eagerly heard and widely disseminated in print. So striking was the patriotism of the literary and educated classes in Berlin that the Swiss writer Johann Georg Zimmermann (1728-1795), whose tract Von dem Nationalstolz (`Of National Pride’) of 1758 had argued that patriotism was a republican virtue, produced a second edition of his work on national pride in 1760, with a new chapter on patriotism in monarchies. In Prussia itself, reflection on the new mood inspired Thomas Abbt to publish his Vom Tode für das Vaterland (`On Death for the Fatherland’) in 1761. At a more mundane level, the mood was exploited by producers of patriotic merchandise: enamelled tobacco jars with battle scenes or portraits of the King and his commanders, ceramics, cloths, silk `long-live-the-King’ sashes (Vivatbänder), prints, and calendars.

The themes of the Prussian patriots were no longer the traditional expressions of sorrow, suffering, and regret, but represented a whole-hearted embrace of war. The fatherland became the highest good. Frederick was styled the greatest hero and the liberator, and eulogized for his actions in war just as previous writers had eulogized the mythical-historical first-century Arminius. War was glorified, the death of the enemy longed for, the patriotic sacrifice of lives in the cause of victory blessed. Nor was this merely a phenomenon confined to the literary second rank. None other than Lessing published Gleim’s grenadier songs; Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) was full of praise for the life and energy of the new Prussian poetry. To them, it seemed that German poets had at last found a worthy German subject. Yet that did not mean that they necessarily shared the authors’ enthusiasm for the Prussian cause. Lessing soon distanced himself from Gleim’s politics. Herder expressed his contempt for `cabinets that deceive each other and political machines that are set against each other until one or the other collapses’ and declared that `fatherlands against fatherlands in bloody conflict is the most terrible barbarism of human language’. As Goethe wrote, one could be `fritzisch’ without caring for Prussia.

Later interpretations of this literature as the first expression of a new German nationalism are wide of the mark. The coincidence of warrior-philosopher king, the eruption of a ferocious and prolonged civil war in the Reich, and the emerging literary market, produced a remarkable corpus of writing. The emphasis on sacrifice, on `victory or death’, as Kleist put it in his `Ode to the Prussian Army’, was indeed new to the German literary canon. It is easy to see why these texts became part of the canon of national-patriotic writing constructed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Yet, for an accurate historical assessment of its contemporary meaning, the phenomenon as a whole has to be seen in the context of, first, the incremental development of the theme of patriotism in the Reich during the first half of the century and, second, the wider international debate about national character prompted by Montesquieu’s Esprit des Lois of 1748. These contexts are more important than any tenuous links with later Prussian nationalism constructed by nationalist scholars in the nineteenth century.

Even in Prussia, it seems that the new patriotism was focused on the person of the King, rather than on the Prussian `nation’ or the polity as a whole. Later patriots, such as Ernst Moritz Arndt, saw things more clearly than many later literary historians: the King hated anything truly national and all the `federative’ characteristics of the Germans (`alles Föderative an den Teutschen’); the national character was inherently opposed both to despotism and to the absolute domination of one monarchy.

The Seven Years War, or Third Silesian War as it was largely known in the Reich, was in some ways as fundamental in its impact as the Thirty Years War. It was shorter, though in many areas equally devastating. It also generated responses more profound than any other conflict since 1648. In Austria and Prussia, of course, but also in numerous lesser territories, the end of the war led to the inception of another phase of reconstruction and renewal, easily comparable in its significance to any of the previous renewal movements since the late fifteenth century. In the Reich the peace of 1763 also prompted the emergence of a wide-ranging debate about reform and renewal, comparable in significance to any since the 1490s. Another consequence of the Seven Years War was the transformation of the position of the Reich in Europe and of the framework within which German political life unfolded.

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