A state with an army, not an army with a state. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

January 18, 2021   6 mins

Today we are called upon to celebrate German Unity. The Brandenburg Gate will doubtless be lit in black-red-gold lights. “Deutschland, Deutschland”, the de-fanged, latest incarnation of Haydn’s hymn to Kaiser Francis II of the Holy Roman Empire, will segue flawlessly into Beethoven’s wonderful setting of Schiller’s awful “An die Freude”, the hymn of that new EU supra-patriotism which is more truly felt in Germany than anywhere else.

And over it all will preside Queen Angela the Great, soon to bow out, most likely replaced by her chosen successor Armin Laschet — she must, in some psychological sense, be its Queen, not its Chancellor, since it is impossible for any mere democratic leader to have approval ratings of 80% in the 15th year of their tenure. She is, quite simply, there because the Germans feel they need her.

And indeed, under her beneficent rule, modern Germany provides Europe with its one world-class industrial economy, its most rock-solid democratic institutions — able, as almost no others have been, to shrug off the challenge of populism — and its bank of last resort. It is fast becoming functionally bi-lingual in English, and is in some ways more like the real Britain than modern Britain: an eyewitness has twice told me how, how at the 2015 G7 at Schloss Elmau, Queen Angela asked David Cameron why on earth he would even consider putting 800 years of unique parliamentary tradition aside in favour of his utterly needless referendum.

So let us celebrate modern Germany. But the reign of Queen Angela, prolonged by the Covid epidemic, will soon be over. Which makes 18 January 2021 the ideal time for us all, and especially the Germans themselves, to properly consider their history — which is to say, who they truly are.

The unification of 18 January 1871 is taught in most schools, here and in Germany, as just one of the great National Unifications of the mid-19th century. The implication is that it was simply part of some natural, general and thus (according to the religion of Progress) virtually inevitable unfolding of history. In truth, it was the most fatal event in modern European history.

The so-called “German Unification” — more accurately the Reichsgruendungstag (“Day of the Founding of the Empire”) — saw the birth of a radically strange new state which, August Hayek argued, was the seed-bed of both Bolshevism and National Socialism. It represented the final, formal step in the complete takeover, by force, of wealthy, ancient, largely Catholic Germany by a far poorer and smaller Lutheran outlier whose sole but decisive advantage was that it was entirely organised for war. British readers might try to understand it by imagining that in the chaos of our own Civil Wars, the Calvinist Scots had beaten Cromwell at Dunbar and then, in alliance with their cousins, the Ulster Scots, installed Charles II as puppet king over far larger and wealthier, but hopelessly fractured England, annexing the whole of its wealth and power to their own project.

The division between the two Germanies was, until the 19th century, almost absolute. Cologne (Colonia Agrippinensis) was officially named in 50AD and designed to be the capital of Roman Germania. When the Empire fell, the baton of European civilisation and Christianity was passed, with no real break, to the Western Germanic dynasties of the Merovingians and then the Franks. Re-founded in 800AD under the greatest Frank of all, Charlemagne, the new Roman Empire (almost identical to the original EEC in geography) had its capital in Aachen. In various incarnations, that Empire remained the heart of European civilisation for a thousand years.

In the East, things were very different. Twelve hundred years after Augustus dedicated his first altar in Cologne, the Prussians were pagan Balts who had barely made First Contact with European civilisation. Then, in 1226, the Teutonic Knights arrived on the borders of modern day Lithuania and Russia, bearing fire and the sword. Eventually taking on the name of the tribe they had come to crush, they slowly expanded. Their spiritual heartland, East Prussia, remained a colonial realm, with a German elite lording it over Slav or Baltic helots, until within living memory (which is why Heinrich Himmler so loved the place, making it his blueprint for the Nazi New Order in the East).

My late father-in-law, born there in 1926, was taught to ride by a Russian stable-boy and listened as his parents spoke Lithuanian to their tenants. Any colonial elite like this has to be constantly on guard, and the Teutonic Knights eventually developed into Junker Prussia, that uniquely militarised realm of which Voltaire famously said: “All states have armies but in Prussia, the army has a state”.

This Prussia was the first place to embrace Lutheranism and fracture the unity of mediaeval Europe. Though it rose to prominence as the robber-state villain of the War of the Austrian Succession, then as the extremely lucky survivor of the Seven Years War (when it was saved from destruction only by the death of Catherine the Great), it remained an outlier of real Germany: “What did we care about Prussia, back then?” (Was ging uns Preussen damals an?) wrote Germany’s greatest author, Goethe, looking back on his youth in mid-18th-century Frankfurt. Yet within a century, this distant, dirt-poor, only semi-German colonial realm based in what’s now Russia and Poland ended up completely taking over the great lands which had been the heart of Western Europe for the best part of two millennia.

How did it happen? We are the villains. In 1814, determined to exit troublesome Europe, Britain unilaterally gifted Prussia a vast chunk of the most developed territory in Western Europe. This so-called Rhenish Prussia, overwhelmingly Catholic, provided the state-worshipping militarists of Königsberg and Berlin with a gigantic increase in revenues, and industries like Krupp’s of Essen. Panglossian British liberals assumed (as their descendants in the 1990s assumed of China) that Prosperity and Reform must inevitably go hand-in-hand.

After all, the Prussians were Protestants and surely, as Lord Macauley taught, Protestants were progressives? Instead, Otto von Bismarck toughed it out, Tiananmen Square-like, with the Rhineland parliamentarians: at the height of the constitutional struggle, in June 1865, the centre of Cologne was cleared at bayonet-point by troops who even enlisted an elephant from the zoo to help drive the reformists from the streets. Meanwhile, armies of state-funded Prussian university professors, their works consciously modelled on our own Whig History, embarked on a campaign to prove that Royal and Lutheran Prussia had a manifest destiny to lead all Germany. Then, in 1866, Bismarck declared long-planned war on Western Germany.

All the four other fully-fledged kingdoms of Germany backed Austria. Hanover defeated a Prussian army in the first major engagement. But the tax-take and hardware from the Rhineland gave Prussia an unbeatable edge. On 3 July 1866 at Koenniggratz the Austrians, who still used Waterloo-style muzzle-loaders, were routed at the greatest battle in Europe between 1815 and 1914. Without any real hope, the west of Germany fought on for another three weeks. Frankfurt, the ancient imperial capital, was surrounded by General von Manteuffel, who informed its citizenry that if they didn’t provide a vast ransom in bullion within 24 hours, he would give them over to plunder by his East Prussian farm-boys. This wasn’t unification, it was conquest. Bismarck waited until 1871 to dragoon the remaining kingdoms into his “German Empire” simply because he was, until then, still unsure that Prussia could digest them. Not for nothing did Disraeli call the new Empire “Prussia-Germany” or simply “Prussia” to the end of his days.

Now, Prussia-Germany was able to deploy all Germany’s industry and manhood eastwards, in pursuit of what had always really mattered to it. By late 1887, the future Chancellor von Buelow was already describing a plan which sounds like Ludendorff’s vision in 1917-18 and Hitler’s in 1941-2: the Prussian-German armies would  “devastate Russia’s black earth region”, destroy its ports and industries and set up a vassal-state in the Ukraine. This was nothing to do with German thinking and everything to do with Prussian thinking: 1871-1945 was the great aberration in German history.

It is incredibly tempting to dream about how different things might have been had Napoleon simply abolished Prussia, as he actively considered doing after trouncing it in 1806.  Imagine: after Napoleon’s fall, we would have had a wealthy, voluntarily but loosely united, largely Catholic Germany, its capital Frankfurt, at the heart of a golden European century which had no need to copy the Prussians and turn the Continent into an armed camp
 the Good Russians, with this example before them, finally consigning Absolutism to the rubbish-dump of history
  Alas! Alternative History is even more absurd than Whig History. But if the past can’t be changed, it can be learned from.

The first lesson is that Germany is not naturally some megalomaniac power bent on domination. That was Prussia. Prussia is gone. If the western Germans keep their nerve, they can safely ignore the last undead hauntings from the East. Germany’s future is where it’s past always truly was: in the West.

The greater, and more worrying lesson is that the most ancient, civilised and wealthy lands can, if disunited and unprepared to defend themselves, end up powerless against brute force wielded by a leader prepared to play va banque, backed by a bloated military who positively long to prove themselves irreplaceable. One of the many tragedies of Brexit is that an EU Army would inevitably have had English as its language of command. We, with the only major battle-hardened force in Europe, would surely have led it. No wonder Putin longed for Brexit.

So let’s not deny the excellent modern Germans our attendance at their celebration. But once the Beethoven and the fireworks and the black-red-gold lights (which would have infuriated Bismarck) on the Brandenburg Gate have faded, let us — above all, the Germans themselves — learn from the their real history. For time, as the man said,  is short.

James Hawes’s The Shortest History of Germany is out in over 20 countries. The Shortest History of England is just out.