Remembering Prussian anti-Polish Policies

Remembering Prussian anti-Polish Policies

Review of Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark. 2006. Belknap Press, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis
A Many-Faceted Analysis of Prussia. Insights into the Fates of Poles and Jews
Instead of repeating other reviewers, I focus on several points, most of which are related to Jewish-German and Polish-German relations. To begin with, the negative connotations associated with Prussia are not limited to Germany’s enemies. Clark comments: “Yet for many Germans, `Prussia’ remains synonymous with everything repellent in German history: militarism, conquest, arrogance and illiberality.” (p. xv). 

Although the ill-fated 1831 and 1863 insurrections of the Poles against tsarist Russia are relatively well known, there was also an 1840’s insurrection, led by Ludwik Mieroslawski, in the Posen (Poznan) region, against Prussia. (pp. 577-578). For a brief period, it enjoyed success before being brutally suppressed. 

The course of Bismarck’s KULTURKAMPF, which developed still later, is described as follows: In 1872-3 a volley of royal instructions issued from Berlin restricting the use of languages other than German in the schools of the eastern provinces…the Prussian government expelled 32,000 non-naturalized Poles and Jews from Berlin and the eastern provinces in 1885, although they had done nothing to breach German or Prussian law.” (p. 580). 

After Bismarck, Prussian policies became even more racist and oppressive. “In 1900, new measures were introduced under Chancellor Bernhard von Buelow to further prune back the use of Polish…Polish place names began to be erased from the maps…” (pp. 581-582). A 20 March 1908 law allowed the forced expropriation of Polish property by Germans. 

Polish resistance was fierce. “…the public backlash in the Polish areas [was] so intense that the administration resolved to avoid any further expropriations.” (p. 582). The compulsory use of the German language, in virtually all aspects of public life, was met with repeated strikes and sustained civil disobedience. Polish banks exploited loopholes in the Prussian regulations. 

Although Prussian Jews faced outbreaks of discrimination and anti-Semitism, their lot was incomparably better than that of the Poles. Clark writes: “There was, of course, no question in the Jewish case of forcing the pace of cultural assimilation (a goal the great majority of Prussian Jews had already enthusiastically embraced) or of repressing ambitions for secession or political independence.” (p. 583). “Jews had no difficulty in being elected to important political and administrative posts in many large Prussian cities…Jews held a substantial proportion (as many as a quarter) of council seats in the city of Breslau…” (p. 584). “Jews continued to play prominent roles in Prussian public life, as parliamentarians, journalists, entrepreneurs, theatre directors, municipal officials, as personal associates of the Emperor and even as ministers and members of the upper house of the Prussian Landtag.” (p. 586). 

”In the 1770’s, the Jewish community of Berlin was the wealthiest and most acculturated of the German states. At its core was an elite of military contractors, bankers, merchants and manufacturers.” (p. 257). Consider, for example, the banker Daniel Itzig and the court jeweler and mintmaster, Veitel Heine Ephraim: “Itzig and Ephraim, like most other members of the Jewish financial elite, were men who had made their fortunes through collaboration with the Prussian state. Both were members of the business partnership entrusted by Frederick II with managing Prussia’s coin supply during the Seven Years War.” (p. 257). For more on prominent Jews in Prussia, see the Peczkis review of Gold and Iron. 

Now consider the late 19th-century Masurians of East Prussia. They were a non-Catholic Polish-speaking people who had no desire for the restoration of a Polish state, yet were subject to Bismarck’s heavy-handed German-language use policies. (p. 580). Much later, in the 1932 and 1933 elections, the Masurians voted for the Nazis at a higher rate than any was the case anywhere else in Germany. (p. 640). They also created the odd spectacle of Nazi rallies carried out in the Polish language. (p. 640). 

Nazism is often misunderstood as a form of extreme conservatism. In actuality, German conservatives were among the strongest early opponents of Hitler. (Ref. 75, p. 756). The Kreisau Circle, a conservative group of Prussian opponents of Hitler, rejected both democracy and fascism in favor of the traditional Prussian Landtag form of government. (p. 669). 

The author relates the attitudes of the German nobility to the Nazis, as he comments: “There was also broad support within the Prussian nobility for the foreign policy objectives of the new regime–especially revision of the Versailles Treaty and the retrieval of lands transferred to the Poles.” (p. 665). 

Clark takes pains to show that most Nazis originated from non-Prussian regions of Germany. He also cites a Simon Wiesenthal study that indicates that half of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis were at the hands of Austrian Nazis. (Reference 115, p. 758). However, Clark does not put this in full numerical perspective, which I do now. According to the RAND MCNALLY WORLD ATLAS 1930 CENSUS, there were 64.4 million Germans and 6.687 million Austrians. This means that, after the Anschluss, Austrians amounted to only 9.4% of the inhabitants of the Third Reich, yet accounted for 50% of top Nazi killers (including, of course, Hitler himself).

By piotrbein