The Prussian Army: Shaping the German Government
Book Essay on: Gordon Alexander Craig,
The Politics of the Prussian Army, 1640-1945

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955), 536 pages.
UCSB: DD221 C7

by Christopher Young
November 22, 2006

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
19th Century Germany
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2006

Prof. Marcuse's homepage
133a Course
133a Book Essays
index page

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning
5$ & searchable
at amazon

About Christopher Young

I am a third year History major with an interest in military history as well as the creation and governance of states. German history from the Napoleonic Wars to the Great War was an area that I did not have a great deal of knowledge on prior to this assignment, and in choosing this topic I hoped to learn more about this time period and the effects the Napoleonic Wars had on the Prussian military.

Abstract (back to top)

The Politics of the Prussian Army examines the role that the Prussian, and later German Army had upon the government of the nation, which it theoretically served. Following the Napoleonic Wars a political battle erupted within the Prussian Army regarding its purpose and relationship to the state and its citizens. After an initial push by what may be considered military liberals the army’s internal politics took on a decidedly conservative and increasingly reactionary stance. The Prussian Army therefore emerged as a powerful conservative faction, which the King of Prussia relied upon to maintain order during the social democratic movement during the latter half of the 19 th century. The army positioned itself squarely against the liberal movement, and in support of monarchial powers. On several occasions the army convinced the King not to work with the liberals but to force a conservative settlement to the issues. In doing so the army was able to override the various civilian governments’ attempts to control it, and ultimately maneuvered itself into a separate entity existing outside of the civilian government’s authority.

Essay (back to top)

The Prussian Army: Shaping the German Government

Politics of the Prussian Army

The state of Prussia receives a good deal of examination in historical circles, particularly in regard to what is commonly labeled Prussian Militarism. This term is often used to describe both the general character of the Prussian state, as well as the force behind the violent unification of Germany under Otto von Bismarck, which laid the foundation for the acceptance of the authoritarian governments that led humanity into two long and protracted World Wars.

From this generalized blame of militarism as exemplified by Voltaire’s remark regarding the size of the Prussian army in respect to its population, “Where some states possess an army, the Prussian Army possesses a state!” is where I first became interested in learning more regarding the relationship between the Prussian army and government leading up to the German Unification Wars. In selecting Gordon Craig’s book, Politics of the Prussian Army I hoped to be able to address questions regarding the policies and political weight of the Prussian army, as well as its ability to exercise influence over the monarchy and provide a conservative counterweight to the liberal agitations that were sweeping across Europe in the decades following the French Revolution. In my readings I found that the Prussian Army, beginning with the reforms during the Napoleonic Wars and moving deeper into the 19 th century, had ever-increasing political influence over the Prussian government, eventually becoming a political entity unto itself, and following unification in 1871, continuing to influence the second German Empire.

Politics of the Prussian Army by Gordon Craig examines the notion that authoritarian government characterized the Prussian people and German Empire. Craig points out that a series of efforts were made to “transform the social and political structure of Prussia and to make this state a constitutional kingdom capable of developing in the same direction as the more liberal states of the West” (Craig pg xiii). Craig covers the role of the army in the creation of the Prussian state and its early history during the 17 th century, then through the reign of Fredrick the Great (1740-1786) to the demands made by the army during the Great War (1914-1918) and finally into the army under Adolf Hitler in the 1930’s. Within the 19 th century Politics of the Prussian Army examines how the political development of Prussia and Germany was dependent, more so than any other European nation at that time, on the organization of the army and its relation to the Prussian king and later the German Kaiser. Craig uses a number of primary sources such as memoirs, publications, and papers from the time period, in addition to secondary works of later historians throughout the book, as the basis for his arguments. He notes that the political aspirations of the people were defeated in part by the lack of limits placed upon their military, and states that examining these events “may help us avoid dangerous mistakes in our own time.”(Craig pg xx)

Political Moves within the Army

Following the disaster of the Battle of Jena in 1806 and the capitulation of Tilsit, King Frederick William III of Prussia appointed a Military Reorganization Commission, mainly to punish those officers who had not lived up to Prussian military honor, that is to say surrendering without providing satisfactory resistance, but also to propose changes in the army’s organization and supply. A number of the senior officers thought the defeat at Jena had been a combination of bad luck and incompetent leadership. In their minds there was no major defect with the organization of the army, and thus major reforms were unnecessary. However, the Reorganization Commission came to be dominated by several key figures, who held the underlying cause of defeat to be that the citizenry was disinterested in the fate of the government, and that a major rift existed between the people and the military. These individuals, led by Scharnhorst, moved to create a link between the people and the army as well as to create a new army that would follow the nation-in-arms model so effectively utilized by Napoleon.(Craig pgs 37-48) By implementing the nation-in-arms, Prussia would focus its entire population and resources towards the efforts for the wars of liberation against Napoleon.

A Liberal Military?

By opening the officer corps to non-aristocrats, introducing universal service in the army, and creating a standing militia that would support the line army, Scharnhorst and his followers hoped to create a system where the general populace would have a greater interest in the state’s army, and through this come to see the army not simply as a tool of the king but as their protector. Another reform that would later become important was the creation of the Ministry of War, which had authority over everything pertaining to the military, with its minister being a member of the central ministry of the state. In this the reformers had great hopes that by bringing the military into the state administration the “gulf between the army and civil society would be bridged.”(Craig pg 53) Following the victory over Napoleon, the reformers renewed their effort to bring about the reform that they had been building up to, a written constitution with some form of national representation. This was natural, as they felt that the “the duty of military service should be balanced by the right to some share in the politics of the state” (Craig pg 71). However, in attempting to secure political reforms they would meet opposition that they could not overcome, and which would sweep them from power and deliver the army into the hands of reactionary forces.

Through skillful political ploys by conservative forces within the army and an untimely battle with Chancellor Hardenberg over the issue of a constitution, the last of the reformers resigned in frustration or were dismissed in 1819. With them, any immediate hope for a national representative body was dashed, and their dream of an “enlightened citizen soldier who played a full and active role in the life of the society to which he belonged died away”(Craig pg 80). The attitude regarding soldiers moved towards viewing them as members of a special class, which was not to be involved in politics and generally abstain from civil society. Through this attitude the gulf between civilians and the military was reopened (Craig pgs 70-80).

The Reactionary Army and the Constitution

In 1840 Frederick William IV became King of Prussia, during a time in which political agitation was growing. After a rising in Berlin on March 18, 1848, and following the army’s withdrawal from the city the next day, reformers favoring a constitution took control. The liberal groups which dominated the Prussian National Assembly attempted to introduce military reforms, most notably restrictions on the King’s ability to command the army and to “transform the army into a body whose first allegiance would be to the constitution which they had undertaken to create” (Craig pg 83).

Vehemently opposing any and all concessions demanded of the Crown by the National Assembly, the army pushed Frederick William IV into a coup d’etat, retaking Berlin in November and dissolving the Assembly on December 5 th. While the King gave the people a constitution, it contained few of the demands that had previously been made, and the Crown kept the right of absolute veto over all legislation. When the King stated publicly that the army would take an oath to the constitution, a flood of petitions from officers arrived urging the King to protect the army, and stating that if such an oath was administered, the “Crown would be left ‘helpless in the face of future attacks by democracy’” (Craig pg 123). Following this, the revised constitution of 1850 stated that an oath by the army to the constitution would not occur. This essentially placed the army outside the constitution, subject only to the king. The only portion of the military bound by the constitution was the Minister of War, who as a minister of the king was required to take an oath to defend the constitution. However, this was highly contradictory since the Minister of War, as an officer of the king, had taken another oath where he pledged absolute fidelity to the monarch (Craig pg 120-123).

Another constitutional conflict erupted during the regency of Prince William in 1859 through 1861. The Chamber, in charge of the budget bitterly fought for some controls over the army, and refused to pass legislation regarding the funding of the military until they were able to secure control over the army. This last attempt by Prussian liberalism to gain influence over the military was defeated partially due to the divided aims of the liberal groups and partially through the skilled tactics of Otto von Bismarck, who was seen as taking charge of the issue of German unification, which the liberals greatly favored. Bismarck was able to find ways around the Chamber’s sealing of the purse, and provided finances for the army. In the course of the war with Denmark, former opposition members became increasingly occupied with being patriotic, rather than voicing dissent, and made a major concession in 1866, which effectively ended middle class liberalism in Prussia. In 1866 Bismarck convinced the King to admit to the Chamber that the actions of the government in sidestepping the budget had been contrary to the law. Following this, the Chamber passed the Indemnity Act of September 1866, making all retroactive activities legal, essentially nullifying their past assertions and accepting the Crown’s actions in bypassing their authority (Craig pgs 136-177).

Beyond the Government’s Control

After the Wars of Unification Germany emerged as a single political entity in 1871, and the power and extent of the army was greatly widened. In 1874 the military advisers drafted legislation setting the size of the army at 401,659 men at peacetime, to be expanded by further legal modification. In this the army was attempting to deny the new German Parliament any control over military affairs. Proposed without full support from Bismarck, the original bill was defeated, but a modified form proposed by Bismarck was accepted which placed the size of the army at the number requested by the government but fixed for a period of seven years. From this grudging acceptance, the military moved once again to assert its control over the army, and to deny control to the legislature, by systematically removing “all matters of command and personnel policy from the jurisdiction of the one officer who regularly appeared before the Reichstag and who could be considered accountable to it for military affairs: namely, the War Minister”(Craig pg 223).

The unification of military matters under the War Minister was dissolved in favor of the General Staff, which was not responsible to the Reichstag, after the military demanded that the new War Minister, Bronsart, agree to two provisions before confirming him. Bronsart had to agree first to allow the General Staff to have direct access to the emperor without the War Minister being present, and second that all personnel matters be administered by the Chief of the Military Cabinet. Thus the one position that was accountable to the legislature no longer had any real authority over the military, aside from purely administrative duties. All decision-making was now outside of the elected government (Craig pgs 219-232).

An argument can be made that the forces of liberalism in Prussia were unable to overcome the strength of the monarchy. Yet the monarchy proved to be willing to allow liberal reforms on several occasions. Indeed, it was the army that often forced the king to take a more reactionary policy. During the Berlin revolt of 1848 when the king was wavering on how to resolve the issue, General-leutnant von Prittwitz privately ordered his men to keep written records of their duty assignments and collect writings on the events in order to:

protect the army from responsibility from any quixotic gesture on the part of their royal commander… an interesting indication of the army’s gnawing fear that the king might be less determined to defend the absolutist system of the past than the army itself (Craig pg 94).

Again during the early 1860’s, when the Chamber was attempting to assert control over the military, General Edwin von Manteuffel organized the Hiller-Manteuffel plan, to brutally suppress any uprising in Berlin by using over 50,000 soldiers of the regular army, in which any negotiation with parliamentarians would lead to a trial by military tribunal. More than simply a plan in the event of uprising, Manteuffel attempted to push the Chamber into revolt, so that he could sweep away the liberal forces and lay a foundation to revoke the constitution and return the state to a pre-March system of absolutism (Craig pgs 151-156).

Conclusion (back to top)

The political aspirations of the Prussian army began with liberal leanings under the leadership of Scharnhorst and his reforms from 1807 to 1813. Scharnhorst envisioned a citizen army that would win itself representation in government. However, after infighting the army purged the reformers and took on a decidedly reactionary character. After 1819 the army existed as a bulwark supporting royalist claims and taking on a political nature of its own, frequently pushing the monarch away from legislatures and to more conservative policies. The army successfully restricted the ambitions of the various legislatures in their attempts to gain some measure of control over the military, ensuring that the army was bound by oath to the king and not to the constitution. Finally, after the unification of Germany and renewed attempts to curb the military by the Reichstag, the army outmaneuvered the Reichstag by removing all effective authority over military issues from the War Minister, the only officer responsible to the elected officials. Through these actions, the Prussian and later German army firmly rejected any claims of authority over by the liberal forces, and worked to create a more reactionary environment with the Kaiser’s support. In their actions, ‘Prussian Militarism’ represented not simply an aggressive foreign policy, but rather an aggressive assault against liberalism and constitutional reformers within Prussia.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)


  • Craig, Gordon A. The Politics of the Prussian Army, 1640-1945. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 1955.
    Chronicles the relationship between the Prussian and later German Army to the politics of the times. This book takes the stance that the army’s leadership held decidedly reactionary policies and struggled to keep the army out of the realm of the civilian government’s jurisdiction.
  • Johansen, Anja. Soldiers as Police: the French and Prussian Armies and the Policing of Popular Protest. Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing Company. 2005
    Examines the problems of military policing action by France and Prussia against riots and civil disturbances. Also looks at the political implications of domestic military intervention.
  • White, Charles Edward. The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805. New York, 1989.
    Gives information regarding Scharnhorst and the military staff during the early period of the Napoleonic Wars.

Book Review:

  • Taylor, A.J.P. English Historical Review: Vol. 71, No. 279 Jstor
    Compliments Craig for arranging and organizing his facts and arguments well. The review gives a summery of Craig’s points with critiques and generally states that Germany’s geographic location is the expiation for the military characteristics of Prussia and later Germany. Highly critical of the relationship between the army and Hitler’s rise to power that Craig makes.


Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 12/13/06; last updated:
back to top, to Hist 133a homepage, 133a Book Essays index page; Prof. Marcuse's Courses page; Professor's homepage