Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A kingdom of shreds and patches

I've been reading Iron Kingdom, an interesting account of Prussian history by Christopher Clark. Prussia extended its territories in its early history through marriage; this had the negative consequence of leaving Prussian territory scattered throughout much of northern Europe. As a result, it was difficult for a Prussian identity to form in the normal way through a shared ethnicity:

Prussia thus remained, in the words of a Scottish traveller who toured ... in the 1840s, a "kingdom of shreds and patches". Prussia, Samuel Laing observed, "has, in ordinary parlance, only a geographical or political meaning, denoting the Prussian government, or the provinces it governs."

Laing's comment, though hostile, was insightful. What exactly did it mean to be "Prussian"? The Prussia of the restoration era was not a "nation" in the sense of a people defined and bound together by a common ethnicity. There was not, and never had been, a Prussian cuisine. Nor was there a specifically Prussian folklore, language, dialect, music or form of dress ... Prussia was not a nation in the sense of a community sharing a common history ... The result was a curiously abstract and fragmented sense of identity. [pp. 429-430]

Clark goes on to note that some people, in the absence of a common ethnicity, tried to base a Prussian identity on the rule of law; there was also a failed attempt to build an identity around loyalty to the crown.

There was one other means to build identity:

The one institution that all Prussians had in common was the state. It is no coincidence that this period witnessed an unprecedented discursive escalation around the idea of the state. Its majesty resonated more compellingly than ever before, at least within the milieu of academia and senior officialdom.

The state began to be seen as the living embodiment of the nation, rather than as an apparatus of government.

No comments:

Post a Comment