Book Review: Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947


The Iron Kingdom by Christopher Clark. It's a history of Prussia from 1600 to the end of the Weimar Republic. It sounds rather dry, but I've always been fascinated by history of Germany in particular. I don't know why – I love Berlin, I love German culture.... What is it about Germany that can produce the Wagner's and the Beethoven's and Immanuel Kant and Mendelssohn – the philosopher Mendelssohn, as well as the composer – as well as this terrible dark side? And Prussia is really the embodiment of all this, so I suppose that's why I was delighted when I received this book.

Price: £6.97
Publication Date: 2007
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Overall this is a welcome addition to the multitude of histories covering central Europe. Clark brings to life an era of Prussian history that is little known aside from the 19th and 20th century Kaisers and this expansive history is a fine piece of research.

The author analyzes the transformation of the Prussian empire from its small Brandenburg origins to the dominant European power it became. The book covers all the major rulers from the Great Elector to Frederick the Great to Kaiser Wilhelm II, and examines in detail the social, political, economic and military issues in the long development of Prussia. What I found particularly refreshing, as predominantly a historian of Prussia only after German Unification in 1872, was the detail of the empire's early years with the Great Elector and his two successors. In this era Prussia gained extensive swaths of territory through alliances and marriages, even as it went through internal and religious strife at home. Clark has clearly done his homework, scouring through dusty archives and examining in multiple languages the papers of the empire, most notably the Political Testaments (a letter of sorts to the next King) of the early Kings. Clark examines the successes of the Prussian military machine, with its strength of the canton regimental system, and the growth of the civil service and judiciary. The political manoeuvrings between Prussia, France, England, Russia, and Austria make for fascinating reading, with Prussia somehow managing to come out ahead more often than not.

At 816 pages this is a large book, and takes a while to get through. Clark's writing style is fairly fluid, rich with detail, but the structure of the book is more thematic as opposed to linear, at least in the early chapters. For example, the clash of Lutheranism and Calvinism in the early empire spanned many decades and three different rulers, with the text jumping back and forth between the years. After a few chapters, it's hard to keep focus on who is ruling and what territory is gained, but it does get better as you get deeper into the book. This however, is a minor fault and may be more based on my writing preferences rather than any fault of the author's.  

The book has a very attractive cover and spine, and its robust -compact construction titillates ones sense of touch when handled, so for those of you who occasionally purchase a history book for how it looks rather than for its content this very solid book would make a nice addition to your history shelf.