Below is a paper that I wrote that explains the historiography of the Prussian School…the influential group of historians that spearheaded the eventual unification of Germany. I think that the reader will find it useful.
The Destiny of the German States
Droysen, Treitschke and the Influence of the Prussian School of Historiography on the Unification of Germany
If one were to choose a word to describe the formation of Germany in the nineteenth century, there is no doubt that word would be ambition. There is a significant difference between being hungry and having ambition, and should the difference be fleshed out, what becomes clear is that on the surface both seem to indicate that there is strong desire. The difference is that a hunger can be satiated while having ambition implies that there is a greater goal in mind and the inertia for the movement won’t be stopped until the goal is attained. When looking at the Prussian school of historiography, there is no doubt that the proper word is ambition. The formation of a true German state, led by Prussia, was the ultimate goal and became the driving force for people such as Johann Droysen, Heinrich Treitschke, Heinrich von Sybel and Friedrich Christoph Dahlmann, members of the Prussian school of historiography. As the nineteenth century progressed, the forces of nationalism and liberalism were becoming the defining ideals of the age, although on the surface seemingly polar opposites. By 1815, Napoleon, in all of his grandeur was gone, the Napoleonic Wars were over, and what was left was the rebuilding of Europe in a decidedly conservative way. Men such as Klemens von Metternich were attempting to keep a grasp on the stranglehold of power that the upper classes enjoyed and were now attempting to re-establish in the post Napoleonic world. This was to prove much more difficult than they thought as the ideals of liberalism were loosed on Europe as a result of the French Revolution and consequently, Napoleonic rule. This post Napoleonic period is where the Prussian School was born. In the shadow of a growing liberal movement, fueled by two failed revolutions in, 1830 and 1848, and a desire for national identity born of the Napoleonic Wars, the Prussian School was to have far reaching consequences not only in its own period, but for generations to come. Johann Gustav Droysen and Heinrich von Treitschke were to have the most influence in its development and subsequent hold over German thought and action in the nineteenth century. One, Droysen, was to set the course and the other, Treitschke, was to define it and give luster to its wholly Prussian ideals. It is the development of the Prussian School and its influence by both Droysen and von Treitschke on German unification that will be the focus of this essay.
It is interesting to note that Robert Southard, when writing about the Prussian School stated that “The formation of this school is a striking case in point of both the indeliberately self serving quality of ideology for intellectuals in politics and of the essentially religious nature of some modern nationalism” The implication being that those of the Prussian School, in this case both Droysen and Treitschke, were taken in by their desire for a Prussian led German state, and as a result, pursued that goal with an almost religious craving. Indeed, both Droysen and Treitschke wrote about that goal in the most passionate terms, with Treitschke directly addressing the Austrian led German states when he stated that the “union of its crown with the House of Austria during three centuries served only to arouse new forces of disintegration and discord, since for our people the imperial rule of the Hapsburgs was a foreign dominion”. It should be pointed out that the question of German unity for the Prussian School was not a question at all. The question is rather one of German unification under Austria or Prussia. To Droysen and Treitschke, it was imperative that Prussia lead the way and become that engine of unity. This was to be done either by direct involvement in the affairs of state as both Droysen and Treitschke did, or by producing works of history that extolled the virtues of both Prussia and Germany with the expressed intent of fueling the fires of passion that would meld the two and create a wholly German state combined with Prussia.
Droysen became the catalyst in this drive for Prussian led unification, but it’s the historiography that is most important to examine. Of the Droysen led Prussian School, Peter Lambert remarks that “But what this, the Prussian school of historians did introduce, was, first, a specific vision of a ‘small German’ nation-state (i.e. one excluding Austrian Germans) and, second, the notion that it was Prussia’s ‘mission’ to unify Germany”. It is the elimination of Austrian leadership of the Germanic states that is most telling here. Droysen’s experience as a representative of Holstein in 1848 was to have a dramatic effect on what he felt was the best way to proceed. Invited to represent Holstein in its dispute with Denmark, Droysen is injected into German politics. He sees this as an opportunity to actually have a direct hand in the direction of his homeland. It was this participation that was to make a lasting mark on his psyche and become one of the main reasons for his subsequent historiography. Southhard makes the point that Droysen’s involvement in the Holstein question was a great opportunity to put his political theory into practice in the real world of politics rather than the netherworld of the written word. This is an important step in his process as it awakens him to the reality of what awaits a politician with grand designs. Initially, Droysen felt powerfully drawn to this endeavor, but the pettiness of politics took its toll on him. Southard remarks that theorists such as Droysen were not equipped to handle the deprivations of politics and that Droysen himself shared that view when he stated “The people are worse than I have always said, rootless, entirely materialistic, without a trace of piety or any but the most trivial interests”.
Increasingly, those of the Kleindeutsch, the “little German” political party that was opposed to Austrian leadership of the German states felt that Austria was much more interested in other international affairs to be truly concerned with the development of a unified Germany. It is precisely this line of thinking that drove Droysen to embrace a new theology concerning the future of the Germanic states. Southhard addresses this change when he observes that “Droysen and his followers made important changes in their historical analysis…by continually abandoning direct political action in favor of political instruction”. Droysen was among the many in Germany that thought German unification was an inevitability, something driven by Providence, a theme that was to recur over and over again not only for the members of the Prussian School but well beyond in Germany. It is a fascinating idea, and one that was to permeate Droysen’s views on German unification. Frederick Scott Oliver, in his book Ordeal by Battle addresses this theme. He speaks of the priesthood of theorists and what their considerations are, using obvious religious references. This is important to note as the subject of Providence and its hand was to become an ever present theme in the histories of the Prussian School. Oliver pronounces that this priesthood has rather grand ideas but that they are generally out of the realm of reality, gathering followers without the ability to realize the practicality of their theoretical ideas to actuality. Further, he notes that it matters not “”whether the priesthood be that of Rome or John Calvin, of economic professors expounding Adam Smith in the interests of Manchester, or history professors improving upon Treitschke in the interests of the Hohenzollern dynasty”.
The first salvo for this “priesthood” was to be launched by Droysen himself with the creation of the two volume biography The Life of Field Marshall Count York von Wartenburg (1851-54). It was written by Droysen with the expressed intent to foster a sense of Prussian nationalism and a sense of German pride. It was borne out of his experience as the representative of Holstein as Droysen now understood that if there was going to be unification, it was going to be by fanning the flames of Prussian nationalism to such an extent that the populace of Germany would agitate for nothing less than the unification of the German state under the auspices of Prussia. The book is about Count York von Wartenburg and his role in defeating Napoleon, a figure that still loomed large in nineteenth century Europe. Lambert picks up on this thought as well when he observes that “Thus, Droysen’s study of the role of York von Wartenburg in ensuring that the Prussian army deserted France and swung behind the Russians. Thereby contributing to Prussia’s and Germany’s ‘liberation’, was consciously designed to jolt contemporary Prussian statesmen into undertaking similarly patriotic adventures”. Southhard claims that this book could not have been written earlier in Droysen’s life as there was always the hope that Prussia would lead in the creation of Germany, but the failed revolutions of 1848 proved that this might not be the case. Droysen concluded that he needed to take a stand and create a movement by celebrating the Germanic spirit through the former glory of Prussia. At this point, it should be noted that Droysen had a particular bent in his approach to history. His particular interest in philology and subsequent expertise with Greek history drove him to see history as an age to age process. Additionally, it would color his approach to history in that he combined this process with a Providential outlook as well. This then led to his belief that German unification was only a matter of process and time, with a steady march to its inevitable conclusion. Droysen himself alluded to this when in his book Outline of the Principles of History he states “Thus, ideally locking together in itself both the future and the past, it possesses an experience analogous to eternity” He was speaking about the mind and its concept of history. It was precisely that he saw history as age to age that was to convince him, and the others of the Prussian School, that German unification was not only a matter of time, but unavoidable. It must, however, be done under the auspices of the Prussian state.
The Prussian School of historians was also to espouse the importance of the military as the unifying force and the subordination of the people to the interests of the state. In fact, Oliver tells us this much when he says that “An alliance between the priesthood and the military caste-especially when the bureaucracy is ready to act in sympathy-is one of the commonest causes of international convulsions” Certainly, Oliver is making this point with the Great War as his backdrop, but the thinking is clear. When the military is combined with the national leadership, it can be a dominant force for both change and an engine for conflict in order to affect that change. It was no coincidence that Droysen called upon the military heroes of the past in order to fan the flames of Prussian nationalism in order to effect the unification he and others like him desired, as would Treitschke, but in the latter case, to a much greater degree. In his analysis of the development of the Prussian School, Southard notes that “The result was the historical outlook called the Prussian School, an outlook still optimistic about the Prusso-German future but now more self consciously realist and more focused on military force and moral will”.
Heinrich von Treitschke, born in 1834, was the son of a Saxon military officer, and many biographers have used this fact as the sole reason for his expression of history in decidedly military terms. Even Treitschke himself seemed guilty of this when in the first part of his History of Germany in the Nineteenth Century he stated that “ No nation has greater cause than we to hold in honor the memory of its struggling fathers” a not so veiled reference to the struggles of Germany as she worked to become a recognized nation. Recognition of Germany as a whole is another important aspect of the Prussian School that should not be forgotten, and one that Treitschke himself took great pains to address. As his family was tied to the traditional German states and their “union” under Austria for their livelihood, it was not without issue that Treitschke took up the mantle of unification under Prussian leadership, following the example set for him by Droysen. Indeed, Treitschke saw this unification as not only imperative but, in the words of Dorpalen speaking about Treitschke “the achievement of German unification became, as he said on another occasion, a moral command”. He was a liberal, and as such, was content to agitate for one state, one nation for the central portion of Europe. Treitschke did not engage in this endeavor without context. He was no stranger to Europe, having traversed it quite often. This gave him an insight into Europe and her many tiered social layers that may have trumped most in his field. He was well versed in European politics and through his travels came to feel as though he understood what was most needed for his beloved Germany. He was also deaf. This affliction caused him great personal pain, with one author noting that “Deafness remained the great sorrow of his life, and through it every enjoyment was driven away. In a touching moment, he complained to my wife that he would never hear the voice of his children”. In that same vein, however, Hausrath notes that his deafness may have actually had a positive effect on Treitschke in that “being deaf he was better able to concentrate on his thoughts” as though he was trying to explain the perceived genius that was Treitschke. Like Droysen, Treitschke also served in government, serving as a deputy in the Reichstag from 1871 until 1884. During that time, he never wavered in his view of what Germany should present to the world, much less to the rest of Europe. He was a Prussian School historian to the last, with an emphasis on the state, the military, and of course, the greatness of the German nation under the leadership of Prussia.
Should one read Treitschke’s histories, one is struck by the fervent nationalism that is contained in them. It is as though he takes Droysen and injects raw emotion rather than the carefully laid out arguments that one of Droysen’s histories would have. Many who looked at Treitschke in later years called him a catalyst for the extremism that would become the Nazi state. One contemporary of that period even went so far as to say “For Treitschke, like Hitler, was the impassioned apostle of violence and race hatred, and his venom infected a whole generation of Germans”. It should be noted here that Padover was writing with the shadows of 1915 casting a pall on his outlook, but it is not without notice that Treitschke’s writing would appear in that vein if taken out of the contextual period in which he wrote. It could easily be stated that all of the members of the Prussian school could be seen in that light as their fervent attitude toward German unification cast a massive shadow on all that they wrote. They were writing for a purpose, an almost religious fervor that could not be readily understood for those not caught in the throes of their passion.
Treitschke also furthered the view that it was the state that was to lead the people toward unification, and expounded on one of the other fundamental principles that would guide the Prussian School. H.W.C. Davis makes this point when he states that “For Treitschke the State had the right to be omnipotent over the individual because the individual could never develop or live a worthy life without the State’s protection and guidance; because the State was the supreme moralising and humanising agency in human life” This would certainly reflect Treitschke’s study of Aristotle like his predecessor Droysen, but also his study Machiavelli. Davis would go on and further state Treitschke’s belief in the state because, as Davis related, Treitschke felt that “A society generates a state and the two things remain inseparable”. It is the power of the state as generated by the people that was going to be the force for unification, and both Droysen and Treitschke recognized this, as did all of the members of the Prussian School. The goal then was to create a history that would inspire loyalty to the state, imbue the people with a strong sense of self, and lead them to force their politicians to grasp for what had thus far eluded them while under the yoke of Austria. It was to be Prussia, that paramount example of the European militaristic state that would be their guide, and Treitschke, that erudite writer of history, was to be their Pied Piper.
Andreas Dorpalen, one of Treitschke’s biographers tells us that Treitschke had a particular view of this force of history, with that view being one that involved the historical-philosophical approach. Simply stated, Dorpalen says that “This approach focused on overall trends and interrelations rather than on an accumulation of factual data”. This would seem to coincide with Treitschke’s thoughts on the inevitability of a unified Germany under the patronage of Prussia rather than Austria. In fact, Treitschke himself nailed down that track when he stated that the outcome of the 30 Years’ War was to have a positive influence on the development of a German state. He said that “It is to two forces that we owe the restoration of our declining nation, which since those days has transformed its life politically and economically, in faith, in art, and in scope: the force of religious freedom, and the force of the Prussian state”. We see again and again the reference to Prussia as the force that must be the engine for German unification, and why it would be so easy to misconstrue Treitschke’s message as one of absolutism of the state combined with a vision of war as the only means to make it happen.
Treitschke would play on the growing sense of nationalism that was to permeate all of Europe as the Nineteenth Century wore on, especially with regard to the German state after unification in 1871, now well on its way to greatness under Otto von Bismarck with whom Treitschke had become friendly. This is not a surprise when one considers the role Bismarck would play in the unification of Germany or Treitschke’s outlook where the unification of Germany is concerned. When his history of Germany was published in 1879, the theme of German defiance and German strength was one that would be constantly repeated. Again, we look at the work that defined him and discover that with regard to the Thirty Years’ War he stated that it was part of the “decisive war of the epoch, the war of religions”. This was to provide the example of German defiance in the face of overwhelming odds, but also to illustrate the strength of the German character that would carry her to heights of greatness. With regard to the Reformation and Germany’s role in it Treitschke remarked that “he should also himself feel and should know how to awaken in the hearts of his readers – what many of our countrymen have already forgotten in the disputes and vexations of the moment – a delight in the fatherland.” In a final notice, he praised the role of Germany during that defining moment of the German states during Luther’s Reformation and the subsequent Catholic response when he stated that “Despite all the wholesale conversions of the Counter-Reformation, Germany remained, as Rome well knew, the citadel of heresy” In his work of 1870 defiantly entitled What We Demand From France, what had come to define Treitschke and the Prussian School appears in full bloom. He spoke boldly when he stated that “Occasion urges us; the wonderful favor of Destiny bends down to offer us, in the grey dawn of German unity, the wreath which we hardly hoped to have won in the mid-day splendor of the German Empire”. Here, Treitschke was urging Germany to push forward, to take that step that would bring to fruition all that Droysen and the Prussian School had hoped. It is reverential tones such as these that define Treitschke and ultimately, the Prussian School.
Some important questions are raised when reading what the Prussian School had to offer, and for the modern reader, they are uneasy questions with which we wrestle. To what degree should we hold Droysen and Treitschke, as well as the other members of the Prussian School, responsible for the outcomes of the unification of Germany. Do we hold them accountable for the resultant militarism that was to characterize that unification under Bismarck and Wilhelm II, but also the terror that was Adolf Hitler? Does the Prussian School with its rhetoric on unification through a militaristic national pride assume some responsibility for what was to come? To answer this would suppose that the future can be told through the eyes of the historian, or the maker of history. It is to hold accountable those in one period for the recklessness of another. When looking at this question in the historical context of the period, it is easy to find nations of similar feeling. One answer may be found in the telling of history and by whom it is told. Eileen Power addresses this line of thinking in her article entitled “A Plea for the Middle Ages” in which she states that “The English are wont to talk as if Treitschke were a monster peculiar to Germany; but our political philosophers differ from him only in being less logical and less brutal”. The point here is that each nation has its own Treitschke, its own Prussian School, but possibly to a lesser degree, possibly not. The power to change national direction through the telling of history is seemingly of a bygone era and the time in which a historian could stir the passion of a people may be well gone in this age of instant news, the internet and momentary attention spans. Carefully planned histories, well thought out and defended theses, and a certain national direction may also be the price that is paid in modern society. It is without question that Droysen, Treitschke and the Prussian School were the standard bearers of that era for their people, a people that were to become defined by their writings and the passion in which they wrote it.
Davis, H.William Carless. The Political Thought of Heinrich von Treitschke. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915.
Dorpalen, Andreas. “Heinrich von Treitschke.” Journal of Contemporary History 7, 3/4 (July & Aug. 1972): 21-35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/259903 (accessed January 9, 2010).
Droysen, Johann Gustav. Outline of the Principles of History. Boston, USA: Ginn & Company, 1897.
Lambert, Peter, and Philip R. Scholfield. Making History: An Introduction to the History and Practices of a Discipline. London: Routledge, 2004.
Oliver, Frederick Scott. Ordeal By Battle. London: Macmillan and Company., 1915.
Padover, S.K. “Treitschke: Forerunner of Hitlerism.” The Pacific Historical Review 4, no. 2 (June 1935): 161-70. www.jstor/stable/3633727 (accessed January 14, 2010).
Power, Eileen. “A Plea for the Middle Ages.” Economica 5 (June 1922): 173-80. www.jstor/stable/2547947 (accessed January 14, 2010).
Southard, Robert. Droysen and the Prussian School of History. Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky, 1995.
Treitschke, Heinrich. Treitschke’s History of Germany in the Nineteenth Century. Vol. 1. New York: McBride, Nast & Company, 1915.
Treitschke, Heinrich Von, and Adolph Hausrath. Treitschke, his Doctrine of German Destiny and of International Relations. New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1914.
Treitschke, Heinrich Von. What We Demand From France. London: MacMillan & Company, 1870.
 Robert Southard, Droysen and the Prussian School of History (Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky, 1995), vii.
 Heinrich Treitschke, Treitschke’s History of Germany in the Nineteenth Century, vol. 1 (New York: McBride, Nast & Company, 1915), 11.
 Peter Lambert and Philip R. Scholfield, Making History: An Introduction to the History and Practices of a Discipline (London: Routledge, 2004), 39.
 Southard, Droysen and the Prussian School, 118.
 Ibid., 196.
 Frederick Scott Oliver, Ordeal By Battle (London: Macmillan and Company., 1915), 136
 Peter Lambert and Philip R. Scholfield, Making History, 39.
Southard, Droysen and the Prussian School, 197.
 Johann Gustav Droysen, Outline of the Principles of History (Boston
, USA: Ginn & Company, 1897), 12.
 Oliver, Ordeal By Battle, 138.
 Southard, Droysen and the Prussian School, 194.
 Treitschke, Treitschke’s History of Germany, xv.
 Andreas Dorpalen, “Heinrich von Treitschke,” Journal of Contemporary History 7, 3/4 (July & Aug. 1972): 24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/259903 (accessed January 9, 2010).
 Heinrich Von Treitschke and Adolph Hausrath, Treitschke, his Doctrine of German Destiny and of International Relations (New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1914), 42.
 Ibid., 43.
 S.K. Padover, “Treitschke: Forerunner of Hitlerism,” The Pacific Historical Review 4, no. 2 (June 1935): 161, www.jstor/stable/3633727 (accessed January 14, 2010).
 H.William Carless Davis, The Political Thought of Heinrich von Treitschke (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915), 6.
 Ibid., 7.
 Andreas Dorpalen, “Heinrich von Treitschke”, 23.
 Treitschke, Treitschke’s History of Germany, 6.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., xv.
 Ibid., 7.
 Heinrich Von Treitschke, What We Demand From France (London: MacMillan & Company, 1870), 18.
Eileen Power, “A Plea for the Middle Ages,” Economica 5 (June 1922): 179, www.jstor/stable/2547947 (accessed January 14, 2010).