Indeed, Ms. Merkel is presiding over a transformation every bit as dramatic as that of her royal predecessor, a cultural and political shift in Germany that exemplifies a rebirth of the Prussian values of thrift, independence and incorruptibility that she hopes to export to her neighbors.
The idea of a Prussian revival, with its implications of German militarism, may strike some as a cause for worry. Even in Germany, it conjures up embarrassing images from the past: monocle-wearing officers barking orders that are slavishly followed by their subordinates.
This past summer Heiner Geissler, the former secretary general of the conservative Christian Democratic Party, said on TV that the golden victory column in Berlin that celebrates Prussia’s 1871 defeat of France is Germany’s “dumbest memorial” and should be demolished. Not surprisingly, in denouncing Ms. Merkel for demanding fiscal austerity and rectitude, demonstrators in Greece and politicians in France have often depicted her as a Prussian dictator.
But such overheated charges may no longer carry the sting they once did. Germans are taking a second look at Prussia, particularly its transformation into the most enlightened European state in the late 18th century under Frederick the Great, a friend of Voltaire and a musician.
The German Historical Museum — housed in the former Prussian armory — recently marked Frederick’s birthday with an exhibition devoted to his shifting image over the centuries. Subtitled “Respected, Revered, Reviled ...” it shows, among other things, how the Nazis misused his memory for their own genocidal ends.
Frederick is undergoing more than just a historical revision, though. Some fiscal conservatives hail him as a contemporary model for prudence in the face of demands for bailouts.
And it isn’t only Prussia’s greatest ruler getting a new gloss, but Prussia itself. Berlin’s Baroque Hohenzollern palace, demolished by the East Germans, is being rebuilt, with a few design changes, as an academic and cultural center. In a sensible compromise between the past and present, its courtyard and three facades of the new building will emulate the original palace, while the interior will be modern.
Perhaps the most controversial episode associated with Prussia, however, is its destruction by the Soviet Red Army in 1945 and the expulsion of millions of Germans from Eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia, where ethnic Germans, the so-called Sudetendeutschen, had lived for generations. After decades of ignoring that history, in 2008 the German Parliament passed a law calling for the establishment of a documentation center focusing on such ethnic cleansing.
Poland and the Czech Republic, which include former Prussian and German territories, tend to see the demands of the expellees as an attempt to claim victimhood status for Germans who were, of course, the aggressors during World War II. But a dispassionate exhibition chronicling the brutal exodus from the East — and addressing forced displacements of populations throughout history — is not something to recoil from. Doing so can offer a more honest and full depiction of the horrors precipitated by Nazism. Germans aren’t trying to valorize Prussia and the German past but, after years of willful silence, to understand them.
There is no reason to fear what such re-examination of the past implies for the future. Quite the contrary. Before World War II, what was good for Germany was bad for its neighbors. During the cold war a divided Germany — and the carving up of the Prussian state by the wartime allies — reassured them of Germany’s peaceful intentions. Now Germany is drawing on its past to create a stronger, more unified Europe. If its neighbors can profit from a revitalized and pacific Germany, they may someday find themselves celebrating Frederick the Great’s birthday as well.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.