Germany wouldn’t exist without Otto von Bismarck, and it was nearly destroyed by Kaiser Wilhelm II – both of them Prussians.
You don’t come across them in news headlines much these days, but it wasn’t so long ago that the Prussians were a dominant force in European politics, and the architects of modern Germany.
They took their name from the Old Prussians, effectively the tribes of the Baltic States, who were eventually conquered by the Teutonic Knights back in the 13th century. The Knights settled the land we now know as Poland with migrants from more Germanized regions of central Europe, and eventually established the Kingdom of Prussia, which covered a huge swathe of territory right across from the Dutch border to what is now Lithuania, including pretty much all of what we now consider northern and eastern Germany.
While the regions further south were riven with religious dispute and busy with the cultivation of vines, this largely flat and protestant north turned out to be excellent at wheat production, and the land-owning dynasties developed sophisticated trade links and transport to the North Sea ports.
The driving force in the uniting of the German states
Their wealth was considerable and their leadership was strong, primarily under Frederick the Great in the 18th century, who established Berlin and nearby Potsdam as his power base (a large exhibition on Frederick will open in 2012 in the Neues Palais to mark his 300th anniversary).
He was followed by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the 19th century, and it was the latter who was the driving force in uniting all the various German principalities into the state we know as Germany today.
Prussians were the dominant force in that new state, but it was their King, Kaiser Wilhelm II, an impetuous, impatient man, who effectively globalised the First World War (by joining the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand) because he thought the English and French were seeking his annihilation. That was the beginning of the end for Prussia; the Kaiser abdicated at the end of the war, and the Prussian state was abolished by the Nazis.
So while there’s no place called Prussia any more, the word ‘Prussian’ is still out there in general useage, but has become more generic, used to describe someone good at giving and obeying orders, being punctual, proper, disciplined, punctual, and honest. As well as rather blinkered, inflexible and unimaginative. As well as a kind of blue.