They gave us Kant and Herder, Frederick the Great and Kaiser Bill; they gave us red Gothic castles and dreary country estates; they gave us Berlin and the Junkers, and when they disappeared, their name became part of the English language. But although Prussian (adj: synonym for spartan) can be found in the dictionary, the Prussian state itself no longer exists.
It is this odd fact about Prussia that makes it so intriguing. Here was a fully-fledged nation, right in the centre of Europe, with its own monarchy, nobility, bureaucracy, army and national identity, which vanished forever. Giles MacDonogh has clearly fallen for the romance of it, and he prefaces this beautifully written history with a description: ‘I went for a walk in East Berlin to look at the still pitted and partly ruinous buildings on either side of the Unter den Linden…’ Anyone who has ever visited the deserted Prussian villages in northern Poland or stood in the ruined shell of an East German manor house will understand what MacDonogh was doing on the Unter den Linden in June 1989. Lovers of ghosts, haunted houses, and faded portraits on crumbling walls will always be fascinated by Prussia, and will certainly enjoy this book as well.
MacDonogh’s subject is, in fact, the decline of Prussia or, as he puts it, the ‘perversion’ of Prussia. His goal is to retrieve the honour of Prussia, whose values are often – wrongly, MacDonogh believes – cited as the foundation of Nazism. The connection between Prussians and Nazism was a