Literature Review # 7: Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600 – 1947 by Christopher Clark

I read this book as part of my research for The Running Wolf, my third novel, which is about a group of swordmakers who left Solingen, North West Germany and moved to Shotley Bridge, England in the late 17th century. (This book was published by Impress Books on 1 December 020 and is available from all the usual bookshops. Watch out for the audiobook, which will be out soon.)

Book cover of The Running Wolf in 3D. The cover is black, with a gold title. The 'o' of Wolf is a pool of molten gold with a running wolf symbol. Above is a Rotterdam warship beneath a moonlit sky showing the constellation of Cancer. The cover is crowned with a sunburst of 9 swords. The spine is gold, with white writing and shows a running wolf emblem as well as the Impress Books logo. It's set out in the shape of a sword.
The Running Wolf (published by Impress Books on 10 November 2020)

As part of my research, I read a lot of books and took notes. In case my notes were useful to anyone else, I started sharing these back in 2016 and then was too busy to type them up. As I can’t really go anywhere on evenings and weekends right now, I’ve dug them out, and will start typing them up and sharing them again. They’re not beautifully written, and they’re not intended to be a review or critique, but just a few quick notes on what’s in each book, which might help you decide if it’s for you or not.

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947 (or as The Guardian prefers to call it: A Fistful of Fredericks) is easy to read and very interesting – assuming you can keep track of all the Fredericks, which is easier said than done! Christopher Clark (or Sir Christopher Munro Clark, if you want to be formal) was winner of the Wolfson History Prize in 2007. Although this book doesn’t touch on the Solingen/Shotley Bridge swordmakers, it was very useful background research and it will be of great interest to anyone with an interest in Prussian history, or in German history.

The book begins in 1600 with the Hohenzollerns of Brandenberg (John Sigismund was the third ruler of the Duchy of Prussia until 1619, who was married to Anna of Prussia – quite a character and a powerful woman in her own right). John Sigismund was followed by George William, who ruled until 1640, and then it’s over to the Fredericks for a long while. The book ends in 1947 with Prussia, its government and agencies, being abolished under a law signed by the Allies. For my purposes, I’m interested in the period up to the early 18th century, so I’ve only made notes up to the 1730s.

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 by Christopher Clark
Iron Kingdom by Christopher Clark

According to Clark, Prussia was comprised of ‘disparate, territorial fragments, lacking natural boundaries, a distinct culture, dialect or cuisine’, saying that it was liminal territory, and he compares the Mark to the Welsh Marches. He also compares Prussia to a series of stepping stones from the Rhineland to the Eastern Baltic. Clark considers the history of Prussia and the path from its beginnings through to Nazi-ism and he argues that a history of ‘illiberalism, intolerance, militarism, authoritarianism, servility and obedience laid the foundations for future dictatorship’.

Brandenburg was the foundation of Prussia. Berlin, its principal city had a population of less then a tenth that of London in 1618 (c.10,000 compared with 130,000). The Electors of Brandenburg were Hohenzollerns,who were ultimately elevated to royal status in 1701. In one of only a handful of mentions about metalworking, Clark refers to Peitz, a metal working centre in the 1550s, which used waterwheels and power hammers; however, Clarke points out that the Peitz iron was prone to shatter in cold weather.

1: The Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg

The Holy Roman Empire of the German Region was ruled by a Habsburg Emperor so there’s a brief discussion about the Habsburgs and how they gained wealth and power through strategically making good marriages.

There were seven German princes (including Hohenzollerns), and some of these princes were Lutherans. The Peace of Augsburg acknowledged Lutheran sovereigns and there were Lutherans in professional posts from the 1500s onwards. Clark explains that dynastic women often affected confessional policy (such as Anna of Prussia). As well as Lutheranism, there was also a good deal of Calvinism, and Clark mentions the Palatinate on the Rhine as being the centre of Calvinism, which was more rigorous than Lutheranism in breaking with Catholicism. While the Lutherans were acknowledged in the Peace of Augsburg, the Calvinists were not, although they were eventually recognised in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

2 Devastation: the Thirty Year War 1618-1648

The Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand was Catholic while much of the country was Protestant. Continental conflicts played out on German Lands. The Edict of Restitution excluded Calvinists from religious peace while Catholics and Lutherans enjoyed official standing.

Magdeburg fell on 20 May 1631. This Protestant city of 20,000 citizens fell to General Tilly’s Armies of the Catholic League in a sacking which ended in a terrible massacre. Clark touches on some of the diabolical torture methods used by Swedish soldiers and says that the shock of what took place ‘severed the collective memory and obliterated folk memories’. As a result, people recalled little of what went on before the Swedish came and as a result, when the Brothers Grimm came seeking tales for their collection, they found very little in Magdeburg.

Invading troops wreaked havoc throughout the land, not just through violence, but because they imposed billets on towns. Often, these billets meant providing 2lbs of bread, 2lbs of meat and 2 quarts of beer per soldier, per day. But soldiers also took whatever they wanted and this led to starvation and malnutrition in the population, to the extent that women were made infertile and some people resorted to cannibalism…

3. An Extraordinary Light in Germany

Clark introduces the Great Elector, Frederick William, from the House of the Hohenzollerns, who ruled from 1640-1688. Although his subjects were mainly Lutherans, he was descended from Calvinist parents and was dedicated to the Calvinist cause to the extent he planned to convert people by ‘cleansing papal idolatry’ from Berlin’s cathedral, which led to a 700-strong riot, and so he accepted Lutheranism. According to Clark, the Calvinists at the time shuddered at the ‘strands of papalism that survived in Lutheran observance’ such as colourful churches, candles and crucifixes, belief in transubstantiation, and so on. In the Edict of Tolerance of 1661, Calvinists and Lutherans were ordered to ‘refrain from disparagement and to keep the peace’. Some Lutherans refused and were jailed in Spandau.

In his efforts to reinforce Calvinism, the Elector encouraged 18,000 Calvinist immigrants to leave France and Switzerland and come to Prussia, allowing them to acquire property rights and become citizens. The Edict of Potsdam in 1685 welcomed Huguenot refugees who were fleeing religious persecution in France; interestingly, the Elector took the poorer people as the wealthier ones had gone to Holland and England, which were economically more attractive. The new arrivals were intended to help Brandenburg’s population recover and to provide skilled and industrious workers. To this end, they were given state assistance such as cheap housing, tax holidays, cheap lending, and so on.

This tolerance did not extend to the Jewish people who’d been expelled from the Electorate in 1517, although 50 of the wealthiest families were invited back in 1671. This caused repercussions amongst Lutherans, who destroyed a synagogue. Lutheranism itself began to split with the emergence of Pietism, whose radical adherents were often attacked by ‘combative Lutherans’. Undeterred, the Pietists continued, and with their commitment to welfare and education, began setting up poor schools and orphanages.

Later, 20,000 Protestant refugees were welcomed from Catholic Salzburg and during their march into Prussia, they were given clothes, food and money by the Prussians. Clark explains that religious rivalry wasn’t always straightforward and that ‘Territorial security overrode the demands of confessional solidarity’, and he cites Catholic France siding with Protestants against Catholic Austria; Lutheran Saxony siding with Catholic Austria against Lutheran Sweden. This provided a way of showing solidarity without resorting to war, and this is why Prussian rulers were keen to offer refuge to so many Protestants from other countries (to say nothing of replacing the thousands lost in the 30 Year War and to famine and plague).

The Great Elector began building up the military during his reign from 3,000 at the start to ten times that by the end of his reign (not least to fend off expansion attempts by Charles X of Sweden and also Louis XIV of France). He introduced flintlock guns to largely replace matchlock guns and pikes. Of course, raising such a sizeable army cost money and the Elector wasn’t shy about raising taxes. Between 1655 and 1688, the army cost 56m thalers, 46m of which were raised through taxation and this led to some tax protests in the 1670s. It seems while he was keen on tax raising, the Great Elector was politically tolerant and there was only one political execution during his rule.

The Peace of St Germain was signed in 1679, with the Great Elector practising ‘pendulum politics’ and swinging between France and Austria. The Elector began introducing Calvinists into top jobs, which angered the Lutheran nobility, not least because it broke the rules about only natives being allowed to serve in office. There is a colourful depiction of the ceremony connected to swearing fealty to the Elector in 1663, which Clark points out is a tradition going back to the twelfth century. The gates to the castle were thrown open, the Hohenzollern eagle spouted fountains of wine all day and silver and gold coins were showered on the crowd. There is also a detailed description of the hand and finger placements involved in swearing fealty and an explanation of what each finger signifies. There are further mentions of taxation, with central control of revenues from 1683.

4. Majesty

The Great Elector warned his heir against expansionist wars and when he died, his successor managed to negotiate the title of king in return for supporting French efforts to put an heir on the Spanish throne (which led to the War of the Spanish Succession). Elector Frederick III had his own coronation designed and crowned himself and his wife, only then going to be annointed by two bishops (one Calvinist and one Lutheran). He imposed a special crown tax to pay for his rather spectacular coronation, which raised 500,000 thalers towards the eventual cost of 6 million thalers (twice annual revenues). So, in 1701, Elector Frederick III became Frederick I, King in Prussia, while the emperor was still the senior monarch of all Christendom.

Perhaps in reaction to the extravagance of his predecessor, the next Frederick, another Frederick William, had no coronation and according to Clark, he was an entirely different kettle of fish. The new king was rage-prone, brutal, melancholy and ill-disposed to cultural matters. He was militaristic and flattened many pleasure gardens to use for military drills, which he enjoyed watching, and increased the army to 80,000 troops. This included a regiment of ‘Lange Kerls’ (tall lads) who were all exceptionally tall and imported from all over Europe, and each one was painted in a full-length portrait. (The book shows a painting of one of these men, Grenadier James Kirkland.)

This king sold off much of the gold, silver, jewels and fine wines and stripped his father’s court of many staff and advisers, as well as the ‘chocolatier, a brace of castrato singers, the cellists, composers and organ-builders’, even giving away the royal lions to the King of Poland. He set up a curious Tobacco Ministry, which was a drinking and smoking club, graced with a coffin in the shape of a wine barrel, where he and other men made coarse remarks about women and played raucous pranks on one another. One of these ‘pranks’ involved locking the victim in a roomful of bears and setting off fireworks…

There are also mentions of plague in Eastern Prussia, which killed quarter of a million people (a third of Eastern Prussia), and had reputedly been spread by invading troops from Russia and Sweden. This tragedy led to accusations of corruption and inefficiency, leading to imprisonment in a Spandau fortress for one hapless minister.

6. Powers in the land

Peasants were ruled by Junkers (jung Herr – young lord) and if they left for another town, they could be forcibly returned. Most were forced to provide labour (whereas other countries had money rents instead). Clark states that the Junker tyranny led to downtrodden peasantry, although there were uprisings with organised protests in the 1680s. Women were largely prevented from entering the guilds, which were dominated by men, but some wives of blacksmiths, etc could work as mistress of a leased tavern. There is little mention of smithing throughout, but Clark does refer to immigrants from German territories making knives and scissors (though he does not specify which territories). He also mentions the Upper Silesian iron ore industry, stating that in 1753 it was the first German ironworks to use a modern blast furnace.

Final thoughts from me

Given the vast numbers of Lutherans and Calvinists who were being welcomed with open arms to Prussia in the 16th and 17th centuries, it is highly unlikely that the swordmakers who left Solingen came to Shotley Bridge because they were fleeing religious persecution (which is a theory put forward by some authors of books about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers). Rather, Prussia was welcoming tens of thousands of religious refugees from neighbouring nations, both to offer religious solidarity, but also to increase the population which had been so badly affected by the Thirty Years War and also by plague and famine. So, we can rest assured that the swordmakers came to Shotley Bridge for other reasons. (I will say more about the subject of the religious persecution theory in a forthcoming blog post.)

Best wishes, Helen

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