Prussia of Our Time

A short historical quiz: 
Which state:

By Uri Anvery

Published: Wed 16 Dec 2009, 9:55 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:50 AM

a. Arose after a Holocaust in which a third of its people were destroyed?

b. Drew from that Holocaust the conclusion that only superior military forces could ensure its survival?

c. Accorded the army a central role in its life, making it “an army that had a state, rather than a state that had an army”?

d. Began by buying the land it took, and continued to expand by conquest and annexation?

e. Endeavoured by all possible means to attract new immigrants?

f. Conducted a systematic policy of settlement in the occupied territories?

g. Strove to push out the national minority by creeping ethnic cleansing?

For anyone who has not yet found the answer: It’s the state of Prussia. But if some readers were tempted to believe that it all applies to the State of Israel — well, they are right, too. This description fits our state. The similarity between the two states is remarkable.

The state that was respected and feared for 350 years as Prussia started with another name: Mark Brandenburg. This territory in the North-East of Germany was wrested from its Slavic inhabitants and was initially outside the boundaries of the German Reich. To this day, many of its place names are clearly Slavic. It can be said: Prussia arose on the ruins of another people (some of whose descendants are still living there).

A HISTORICAL curiosity: The land was first paid for in cash. The house of Hohenzollern, a noble family from South Germany, bought the territory of Brandenburg from the German emperor for 400,000 Hungarian Gulden. I don’t know how that compares with the money paid by the Jewish National Fund for parts of Palestine before 1948.

The event that largely determined the entire history of Prussia up to World War II was a Holocaust: The 30-year war. In this war, a third of the German population was killed and two thirds of their villages destroyed. The Prussian answer to the ravages of the Holocaust was to erect an iron wall: A powerful regular army that would make up for the lack of seas and mountains and be ready to defend the state against all possible combinations of potential enemies.

Prussia was never a “normal” state of a homogenous population. By a sophisticated combination of military conquest, diplomacy and judicious marriages, its masters succeeded in annexing more and more territories to their core domain. One of those was the area that came to give the state its name: Prussia. It was a very poor country, lacking natural resources, minerals and good agricultural soil. It used its army to procure richer territories.

Because of the poverty, the population was thinly spread. The Prussian kings expended much effort in recruiting new immigrants. In 1731, when tens of thousands of Protestants in the Salzburg area (now part of Austria) were persecuted by their Catholic ruler, the king of Prussia invited them to his land. When the French Huguenots (Protestants) were slaughtered by their Catholic kings, the survivors were invited to Prussia and settled in Berlin. Jews, too, were allowed to settle in Prussia in order to contribute to its prosperity.

When Poland was divided in 1771 between Russia, Austria and Prussia, the Prussian state acquired a national minority problem. In the new territory there lived a large Polish population.

The Prussian response was a massive settlement campaign in these areas. The German settlers got a plot of land and many benefits. The Polish minority was oppressed and discriminated against in every possible way.

This Prussian effort had a direct impact on the Jewish colonisation of Palestine. It served as an example for the father of Zionist settlement, Arthur Ruppin, and not by accident — he was born and grew up in the Polish area of Prussia.

It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of the Prussian model on the Zionist movement in almost all spheres of life. Theodor Herzl, the founder of the movement, was born in Budapest and lived most of his life in Vienna. He admired the new German Reich that was founded in 1871, when he was 11 years old. Herzl’s diaries are full of admiration for the German state. He courted Wilhelm II, King of Prussia and emperor of Germany, who obliged by receiving him in a tent before the gate of Jerusalem.

He wanted the Kaiser to become the patron of the Zionist enterprise, but Wilhelm remarked that while Zionism itself was an ‘excellent idea’, it “could not be realised with Jews”.

Herzl was not the only one to imprint a Prussian-German pattern on the Zionist enterprise. In this he was overshadowed by Ruppin, who is known today to Israeli children mainly as a street name. But Ruppin had an immense impact on the Zionist enterprise, more than any other single person.

He was the real leader of the Zionist immigrants in Palestine in their formative period in the first quarter of the 20th century. He was the spiritual father of Berl Katznelson, David Ben-Gurion and their generation, the founders of the Zionist Labour movement that became dominant in the Jewish society in Palestine.

If so, why has he been almost eradicated from official memory? Because some sides of Ruppin are best forgotten. Before becoming a Zionist, he was an extreme Prussian-German nationalist. He was one of the fathers of the “scientific” racist creed and believed in the superiority of the Aryan race. Up to the end he occupied himself with measuring skulls and noses in order to provide support for assorted racist ideas. His partners and friends created the “science” that inspired Hitler and his disciples.

The Zionist movement would have been impossible were it not for the work of Heinrich Graetz, the historian who created the historical image of the Jews. Graetz, who was also born in the Polish area of Prussia, was a pupil of the Prussian-German historians who “invented” the German nation, much as he “invented” the Jewish nation.

Perhaps the most important thing we inherited from Prussia was the sacred notion of the “state” (Medina in Hebrew) — an idea that dominates our entire life. The official name “State of Israel” is essentially Prussian. When I first brought up the similarity between Prussia and Israel it might have looked like a baseless comparison. Today, the picture is clearer.

Not only does the senior officers corps occupy a central place in all the spheres of our life, and not only is the huge military budget beyond any discussion, but our daily news is full of typically Prussian items. For example, it transpires that the salary of the army chief of staff is double that of the prime minister.

The minister of education has announced that henceforth schools will be assessed by the number of their pupils who volunteer for army combat units. That sounds familiar — in German.

After the fall of the Third Reich, the four occupying powers decided to break up Prussia and divide its territories between several German federal states, Poland and the USSR. That happened in February 1947 — only 15 months before the founding of the State of Israel. Those who believe in the transmigration of souls can draw their own conclusions. It is certainly food for thought.

Uri Avnery is an Israeli peace activist. He served three terms in the Israeli parliament (Knesset), and is the founder of Gush Shalom peace movement. For feedback, write to

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