Monika Wienfort: Geschichte Preußens (= C.H. Beck Wissen), München: C.H.Beck 2008, 128 S., 2 Karten, ISBN 978-3-406-56256-3, EUR 7,90
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Synthesis is easiest from a standpoint of relative ignorance. For an expert in the field, the task of summarising the history of Prussia in 120 pages poses two challenges. First there is the matter of boiling all that accumulated knowledge down to its barest essentials. Then, having crushed all the life and colour out of the subject you love, you must somehow restore vigour and movement to the narrative. In this elegantly written and intelligent overview, Monika Wienfort, one of the foremost scholars of Prussian history, triumphantly masters both tasks. The longue durée of Brandenburg-Prussia's history, from the twelfth century through to the abolition of the state of Prussia in 1947 and its cultural afterlife in divided and reunified Germany is conveyed in clear, cogent lines. In lucid, dynamic prose, Wienfort sets the major events in their social and cultural context. The result is a readable, authoritative synopsis.
It is also more than that. The writing is animated throughout by a sharp awareness of the vectors of change - especially of those that transcend individual epochs, such as the tensions between church and state, that reach - in a variety of forms - from late medieval Brandenburg via the Reformation and the rise of the pietist movement to the Prussian Union of the 1817 and the Kulturkampf of the 1870s, in which Prussia played such a prominent role. Inward migration is another long-term phenomenon whose impact on state and society in Brandenburg-Prussia is a recurrent theme. Wienfort is alert throughout the text to the many diverse landscapes encompassed within the rubric 'Prussia'. Excellent brief discussions of 'absolutism', the emergence of the 'Gesamtstaat' (not just as an aggregate of administrative entities but as an idea and aspiration), the impact of the 'Prussian Reforms' (of which she offers a sceptical but differentiated account) and the Prussia-Reich dialectic unleashed by the events of 1870-71 reveal an easy mastery of the relevant literatures. More unusually (though unsurprisingly, perhaps, in light of her previous work), Wienfort enriches the texture of her account with concise, sophisticated discussions of law and judicial procedure and their growing legitimacy in the eyes of the population, including the peasantries. Alongside the political narrative, a strikingly three-dimensional view of Brandenburg-Prussian society emerges. Women, as rural producers, town-dwellers, consumers and political activists are deftly integrated into the story. Even those hard-working and ill-rewarded servants of the state, the country schoolteachers, whose pay in the mid-eighteenth century amounted to four talers a year and a small piece of land, get their brief moment on stage. In an insightful discussion of the Müller Arnold affair, in which Frederick II overturned a court verdict against a miller whose watercourse (and thus livelihood) had been ruined by the fishponds of a neighbouring nobleman, Wienfort goes beyond the standard questions about the king's alleged misuse of his prerogative to consider the implications of the case for environmental history and the history of land-use.
Wienfort's book reflects the orientation of the current scholarship on Prussian history, a literature to which she has made important contributions. The book is marked throughout by a feeling for the specificity of locality and region, the power of religion and gender as well-springs of identity and the interplay between culture and politics. This excellent short history can be confidently recommended to colleagues, students and the interested general public. Never mind the length, feel the quality.