The Rise and Fall of Prussia, Reviewed by Ashley


Published in 1980, The Rise and Fall of Prussia is a concise book on the history of Prussia from the middle ages up to the abdication of the German emperor after WWI. The book was first published in German under the title Preussen ohne Legende (which literally translates to “Prussia without Legend”) in 1979. It is unknown why the publisher of English translation did not adopt a literal translation of the original title.

In this book, the author Sebastian Haffner presents an interpretation of Prussia as a metropolitan empire which was founded upon ideals of rationality and liberty. Frederick the Great is central to Haffner’s narrative of Prussian history, for he established the tradition of “rational state” in Prussia, in Haffner’s words,

His flute playing, his love for the arts, his Anti-Machiavelli, positively dripping with enlightened humanism, his enthusiastic friendship with Voltaire, the flood of humanitarian decrees when he assumed the throne – abolition of torture, (with certain exceptions), ‘Journals must not be interfered with,’ ‘In my state let everyone find salvation in his own fashion’ – this was not a mask or a magnanimous whim, but the real Frederick, his original character.[1]

One major contribution made by this book proposing the distinction between “Prussianness” as established by Frederick the Great and “Germanness” according to Bismarck and Hitler. Haffner emphasises that racism was not part of Frederick the Great’s policy, as he argues, “The million of Poles, for instance, whom Prussia incorporated between 1772 to 1795, were no worse in Prussia than before. […] There was no intention to ‘Germanise’ them, such as become the sad practice in the German Reich in the days of Bismarck and even more so after Bismarck.”[2] By introducing this argument Haffner implicitly contradicts the popular perception at the time of the book’s publication that Prussia was the “root of all evil” – according to Winston Churchill – for the humanitarian disasters caused by Nazi Germany in WWII. Interestingly, Churchill’s line is itself a disputed quote. One version of his quote in 1943 reads “Prussia was, I want to stress that, the root of all evil in Germany”, the other is “The twin roots of all our evils, Nazi Germany and Prussian militarism, must be extirpated.” It is unverifiable which version is authentic, or whether Churchill might have stated both versions on different occasions. Either way, both are frequently quoted in popular publications, sometimes in full and sometimes in fragments. This might well be an example of how popular histories often involve dubious accounts built upon more dubious accounts. On a pessimistic note, it happens in academic histories as well.

Like many other popular history books, The Rise and Fall of Prussia does not include footnotes or endnotes, nor does it list out the bibliography. This certainly undermines the credibility of the author’s arguments since it is unclear where the evidence comes from. The only identifiable historian whom Haffner explicitly quotes from is Walter Bussmann, specifically Bussman’s comments on Bismarck’s foreign policy[3], but without stating from which of Bussmann’s books the quote is extracted from.

What is more problematic with the absence of footnotes and bibliography is that it is impossible to trace the “legends” that Haffner seeks to refute in his book and where these “legends” come from. In the early chapters of the book, Haffner remarks that Frederick the Great is “an underrated King of Prussia”[4], but does not specify who “underrated” the King. If he is referring to the perception of Frederick the Great among the general public, then his argument is hardly true, as Frederick the Great is often portrayed in a relatively positive light in German history textbooks and popular histories for the very same policies Haffner praises. In fact, Haffner’s portrayal of Frederick the Great does not differ much from that presented in other German popular history publications since the eighteenth century. Without knowing what the “legends” are and who created them, the whole book reads like an attack on a strawman that might not necessarily exist apart from in the author’s imagination.

While there is neither footnotes nor bibliography, the book does provide an appendix which consists of a chronology of the history from 1147 to 1947, and eight maps of Brandenburg-Prussia from 1415 to 1918. The indication of state boundaries is also confusing as some are drawn in solid lines while some others are drawn in dotted lines. Moreover, the lines very often end abruptly in the middle without explanation. It only becomes more difficult to navigate through the maps as they do not come with a legend or note illustrating what each of the map symbols means. This raises the question of reliability of these maps. The appendix might help readers grasp a general idea of the Prussia’s territorial expansion throughout 1415-1918, but they rarely offer any insight beyond that.

To understand this book, it might be helpful to look into the background of the author. It is stated on the back cover that Haffner considers himself “a Prussian by birth”[5], as he was born in Berlin in 1907[6] when the German Empire still existed. (Although, to be fair, the back cover might not be penned by himself, but his editors.) The nostalgic undertone of the book might be explained by the author’s idea of his own identity. In 1938, Haffner moved from Germany to Britain and began his career in journalism; he returned to Germany in 1954, where he wrote for Die Welt and Stern.[7] There he gained popularity as a political commentator. It should be unsurprising that his writings followed closely to popular trends in West Germany at the time.

It is also important to note the timing of the publication the book. Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, a historian at Fairfeld University, marks the beginning of the Prussian Wave (Preussen-Welle) at 1977 when West Berlin held major exhibition on the history of Prussia.[8] Interestingly, as Rosenfeld points out, the exhibition did not coincide with the anniversary of any major event in Prussian history.[9] One way to interpret this curious situation is that the Prussian Wave was not only meant to allow West Germans to revisit Prussian history, but also to allow them to reposition their attitude towards WWII, thirty years after the war. The Rise and Fall of Prussia was published when there was rising interest in Prussian history among the West German public in this context. Prussia was (and arguably still is) often perceived as the root of German militarism, or Nazism even. Shortly after WWII, Prussia became a taboo in German public discourse for this reason. Haffner’s interpretation of Prussian history contrasts greatly with such narrative. His book spoke to the underlying frustration among the West German public towards the unspoken censorship of anything related to Prussia, and furthermore, the trauma from the expulsion of Germans in former Prussian territories. His intention to bring awareness to the expulsions – but not to encourage revenge – is obvious in the conclusion of the book:

All that is left now is a glance at the final and most frightful chapter of Prussian post-history. This no longer concerns the Prussian state; that no longer existed. It was not Prussia as Prussia that paid the price of the lost Second World War, as it had done for the First; but the Prussian people: East Prussians and West Prussians, Pomeranians, people from the New Mark, and Silesians, those people of mixed German and Western Slav blood who had once provided the principal part of Prussia’s national substance. They lost the land which throughout seven centuries had been their homeland – first through mass escape and later through expulsion. […]  What does one do about atrocities, how does one cope with them? Keeping a score is no use; thoughts of revenge only make everything worse. Someone has to find the magnanimity to say: ‘This is enough.’ To have been able to do that is a title to glory that no one can take from the expelled Prussians. Anyone so disposed may call the matter-of-fact way in which they, without any thought of revenge, and soon without any thought of return, have made themselves at home and useful in Western Germany evidence of Prussian matter-of-factness. It lends to the sad story of Prussia’s slow demise something of a ringing final chord.[10]

It might be more sensible for academic historians to read The Rise and Fall of Prussia as a source of historical memory of Prussia in West Germany, rather than a historical source of Prussian history in itself. As a history book, the arguments are poorly supported and occasionally oversentimental. As a popular publication, however, it might have well captured the sentiment of its West German readership at the time. And this, perhaps, is the spirit of popular history – despite being prone to questionable accuracy, compiled with dubious supporting materials, and making broad, sweeping claims, it reflects the collective memory of the past, and that is not at all meaningless.

[1] Sebastian Haffner, The Rise and Fall of Prussia, trans. Ewad Osers (London, United Kingdom: Phoenix, 1980), 31,

[2] Ibid., 70.

[3] Ibid., 117.

[4] Ibid., 50

[5] Ibid., back cover.

[6] Ibid., front matter.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rosenfeld, Gavriel D., “A Mastered Past? Prussia in Postwar German Memory,” German History. 22(4) (2004): 508.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Haffner, The Rise and Fall of Prussia, 157-158.

One response to “The Rise and Fall of Prussia, Reviewed by Ashley”

  1. Tristan Hughes says:

    Dear Ashley,

    Thank you for your article. I enjoyed the piece. One thing I think you could have gone into detail more (although you do discuss it) is the authors particular motivations behind writing the text, especially vis-à-vis 1979, and how this might have significantly impacted the narrative. I personally am very unsympathetic to the kind of theodicy which Haffner is presenting, and it is very popular in contemporary German culture. Take for example, the passage where he bemoans the fact that Germans of “mixed German and Western Slav blood” had to leave their East German after the war. The very idea of a Germanic ‘mixed’ or ‘pure’ blooded individual smears of biological racism, so it is awkward for Haffner to be using such categories in his book. Moreover, many of the Ostdeutschen in Silesia and Transylvania, and so on, formed a kind of aristocracy, and were extremely cruel to the local peasants. I therefore find it hard to accept the putative nobleness of the disenfranchised Prussians, who usually ended up in Eastern Europe not through peaceful migration, but conquest. Of course, their story is one that needs to be told, i.e. the forceful homogenization of Europe and destruction of cosmopolitanism of which they were a part. Maybe there are better ways of doing so. Thank you!

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