A few years ago Giles MacDonogh published an excellent biography of another of Freiser's victims, Adam von Trott zu Stolz, the German Rhodes scholar who was hanged by the Nazis for his role in the 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler. In the process MacDonogh began to reflect on the fact, surprising to most people in Britain, that among the comparatively few Germans in the resistance there were a surprisingly large number of men and women from the heart of the Prussian upper class, the group generally blamed in Britain for the rise of virulent German militarism.
Now MacDonogh has devoted a whole book to the questions raised in his mind by the heroic resistance of these Prussian noblemen, among them: How much was Prussia's military tradition responsible for the two great wars of this century? How much was it the fault of the Hohenzollern dynasty? How reactionary were the Junkers? How civilised was Prussia, and how Prussian was the Nazi Reich?
This is not, therefore, a formal history of Prussia, and from time to time I found myself wishing that it were. Although MacDonogh writes interestingly about the medieval origins of Prussia as the eastern march of the Germans, bordering the Slav lands, and about the emergence of the Prussian monarchy under the Great Elector and Frederick the Great, he zips along a little too quickly for my taste to the apogee of Prussian military conquest at Versailles in 1871 and to its decline and fall in the first half of the 20th century.
Even so, this is a thoughtful and original book which deserves to shake some of our most erroneous and damaging assumptions about German history. It is far from an apologia for the Prussian tradition. In particular, MacDonogh does not minimise the responsibility of the Hohenzollern family, and in particular of the last Kaiser. He paints an appalling picture of the abdicated All-Highest, his second wife Hermine and his little court in exile at Doorn in Holland. Even in 1939, after the bulk of their estates had been taken from them, the Hohenzollern were still the biggest landowners in Germany. The Kaiser and his sons flirted and intrigued in an amateurish way with the Nazis, especially through Goering as an intermediary, for all the world like bullock negotiating for the return of their field with a tiger.
MacDonogh produces a good chapter on the education of the Prussian elite in boarding schools, another on the culture of the (relatively democratic) general staff, and an excellent account of the Eulenburg homosexual scandal of 1907-9, which was more explosive in its way than the Oscar Wilde case a decade earlier.
These excursions into Prussian history, however, are slightly at random, and MacDonogh always seems in a hurry to reach the final conflict between the Prussians and Hitler. Although several of those who bear heavy responsibility for Hitler's coming to power, including Hindenburg and General Kurt von Schleicher, were Prussians, and Prussian generals must bear their share for allowing the atrocities of the Third Reich on the Eastern Front and elsewhere, MacDonogh produces interesting evidence to counter the vulgar stereotype that the Nazi movement was specifically associated with Prussians.
Of the 500 senior Nazis, for example, only 17 were Prussians: that is 3.4 per cent, when the population of Prussia was such that a pro rata figure would have been 328. Few of the most notorious butchers were Prussians, though a few were. More typical of the Prussian upper class were the attitudes of men like the art historian, Udo von Alvensleben or his friend Colonel-General Kurt Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord: such men might wring their hands about how the nation had lost any sense of right or wrong, but they could not bring themselves to break their code of obedience to the point of doing anything about it. It was the younger generation of the great Prussian families, and of course only some of them at that, men like Henning von Tresckow, who drew the logical conclusion that Hitler and the Nazis had forfeited all right to command their loyalty.
While he was on leave from the Eastern Front in 1943, Henning von Tresckow, who belonged to the inner circle of the Prussian military tradition, went to see his two sons confirmed in the garrison church in Potsdam, the shrine of the Prussian spirit. There he produced what MacDonogh sees, rightly I think, as a classic statement of what was best in the Prussian tradition: 'The concept of freedom can never be removed from Prussianism,' he told his sons. 'True Prussianism is the synthesis of bond and liberty, between natural subordination and a ruling class which wholly understands the needs of its subordinates, between pride in yourself and understanding for others, between rigour and compassion.' It is as good a definition as you will find of what is best in the Tory spirit which was destroyed in Germany by National Socialism and has been destroyed elsewhere by commercialism as much as by egalitarianism. Giles MacDonogh has exposed a faulty stereotype and done justice to those men who held out against the perversion of a once noble, if flawed, tradition.Reuse content