We Are All Prussians Now


On September 12, 2001, while the site of the once-upon-a-World Trade Center was still smoldering, French journalist Jean-Marie Columbani wrote the famous words "we are all Americans now." The attacks on the United States of the previous day had prompted one of "the gravest moments of our own history," and would completely changed the world:

[H]ow can we not feel profound solidarity with those people, [Columbani wrote] that country, the United States, to whom we are so close and to whom we owe our freedom, and therefore our solidarity? How can we not be struck at the same time by this observation: The new century has come a long way.

And it has come quite a bit farther since Columbani’s column was published that Wednesday morning in September. He predicted the marshaling of U.S. anger and military power, but failed to see how poorly that power would be guided and utilized. He predicted that Russia would become Washington’s greatest ally in this war, and that certainly has not happened. In focusing on the madness he believed present in the Arab and Islamic worlds, he was blind to the madness present among all "us" Americans.

It was a nice sentiment, I suppose, this "we are all Americans now." But it wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now.

An even greater gulf separates the United States of 2008 with the Prussia of the early 1860s — one that makes comparison difficult — but in reading historian Koppel Pinson’s Modern Germany: It’s History and Civilization, I think there is an intriguing parallel between Prussia and the rise to power of Otto von Bismarck and the United States of not just today, but the last few decades. One that is worth paying attention to.

According to Pinson, Prussian King Wilhelm made Bismarck chancellor after a lengthy dispute with the Prussian parliament over the expansion of the army. Wilhelm wanted to increase the power of the standing military at the expense of the militia, the Landwehr. However, the "progressive" reformers (many of whom had backed the failed attempt to create a unified German state in the Revolution of 1848) had long been supportive of the militia as an expression of both a "popular and liberal regime." It was parliament versus the crown, and thus much of the action of government was stalled.

Bismarck’s response to parliament’s inability to get anything done was simple. According to Pinson, he simply withdrew the proposed budget for 1862, the budget that the parliament could not agree upon, and decided "to carry on the financial business of the state" regardless.

The lower house passed a resolution declaring all such expenditures unconstitutional, but the resolution was rejected by the upper house. The diet was thereupon prorogued, and the liberal and Progressive deputies, returning to the constituencies, were received as heroes. Popular resentment against the government ran high … (p. 129)

None of this stopped Bismarck, who recalled the Prussian diet and justified his actions by stating that he was accountable to the king, not to parliament. Nothing in the Prussian constitution stated that the two houses of parliament had to agree with the crown, Pinson writes. He then goes on the quote Bismarck making the final and greatest justification a statist can make:

"For me the necessity that the state exists is enough. … Necessity alone is the determining factor" that calls for continued collection of taxes to finance all the expenditures for state activities. (p. 129)

Necessity alone allowed Bismarck to ignore the parliament, ignore the constitutional requirement that parliament authorize all taxation and expenditures, and keep the machinery of state functioning, to eventually wage two wars.

What followed should have been the grinding to a halt of local and national government across Prussia. Bismarck "commenced a war against Progressives outside the halls of the diet," using state officials (including university professors) and the media to "combat the liberal-Progressive opposition." The press was censored. The Ministry of the Interior forbade local councils and governments from even discussing the matter, refused to approve the appointment of opposition mayors.

"Public sentiment, however, was overwhelmingly against the government," Pinson wrote. Legislators censured and condemned, experts in law said Bismarck violated the "firm moral order and legal order" of society and placed the state in jeopardy. Even the crown prince, future Emperor Frederick (who would reign for only a few months between the Wilhelms), publicly condemned Bismarck. And when the chancellor ordered new elections later in 1862, the liberals and Progressives came back with an even bigger majority in parliament.

In the midst of this, what happened? Were those opposed to Bismarck’s unconstitutional rule and his violation of law able to stop the chancellor? Did Germany rise up, topple the regime and bring about a new era of liberal governance guided by law and freedom? Pinson wrote:

The government continued, however, to collect taxes and make all the government expenditures it deemed necessary. And nothing happened. (p. 130)

A deeply unpopular government, in Pinson’s words, facing a unified opposition in parliament just plowed ahead as if it had the mandate of heaven, as it could and did command majority support among the people it governed. Despite whatever popular sentiment existed against Bismarck as chancellor, there was no popular sentiment against the state. And the political culture of Prussia did not allow for any opposition to either government or state. Merely suggesting that no one should pay their unconstitutional taxes got parliamentarian Johann Jacoby arrested and tried for treason, Pinson wrote.

A situation had developed which seems utterly impossible to one accustomed to Anglo-Saxon parliamentary institutions [Pinson wrote]. Ferdinand Lassalle [founder of what would eventually become Germany’s Social Democratic Party] published a keen analysis of the constitutional conflict in which he attempted to show why a refusal on the part of the Prussian population to pay taxes that had not been voted would be ineffective. In this he drew a brilliant comparison between the situation in England and Prussia. In England, wrote Lassalle, if the tax collector were to come to demand taxes not voted by parliament he would be thrown out of the house by the citizen. If the citizen were arrested and brought to court, he would be freed by the court and sent home with praise for having resisted illegal force. If the tax collector were to come with troops, the citizen would mobilize his friends and neighbors to oppose force with force. A battle would ensue with possible loss of life. The tax collector would then be hauled into court on the charge of murder, and his defence that he acted "on orders" would be rejected by the British court since he had been engaged in "an illegal act." He would be condemned to death. If the citizen and his friends had killed any soldiers, they would be released because they were resisting illegal force. "And because all the people know this would happen," wrote Lassalle, "everyone would refuse to pay the taxes — even those who are indifferent — in order not be considered bad citizens." The government can do little since the Mutiny Act made the existence of the army dependent on annual grants from parliament.

In Prussia, Lassalle went on to say, it is different. If the Prussian citizen were to throw out the tax collector who came to collect taxes not approved by the diet he would be hauled to court to receive a jail sentence for "resistance to lawful authority." If fighting and killing ensued, the soldiers would be protected from prosecution because they "obeyed orders," while the citizen who attempted to resist by force would be convicted and beheaded. "And because this is so and because from the start all the odds are against those who refuse to pay taxes, only a minority of most principled characters will refuse to pay, the government will feel confident of any action it undertakes and all the officials will be loyal to it." (p. 130—131)

Do we live in a United States that is more like Lassalle’s description of Anglo-America or Prussia? Between the argument of necessity — the state must continue to pay salaries and support the needy and fund programs, to build roads and equip the military and protect the country — and the sheer power of the president, what power would even a united Congress have against any president, who can and does marshal the kind of power Bismarck used to propagandize and control the "public debate?" If Pinson’s description is correct, the weight of public opinion, of election returns and parties in parliament, even the constitution itself, did not matter to the conduct of Bismarck’s government.

With what so many Americans have invested in the person of the president and the presidency, it would be no great stretch to see heated and fervent support for a president engaged in deliberate violation of the law and constitution for both alleged necessity and the supposed good of the state. We’ve seen shadows of that in the last few decades as presidents wield more and more power, as they grab and clutch and grope more and more legally and morally unaccountable authority. The Bush regime has been especially good at assuming Bismarck’s mandate, proving that public opinion is no real counter to the wielding of state power. No doubt, the next president will expand that power. Presidential power, at least in my lifetime and not since the 1930s, does not shrink.

It is also not be hard to imagine a time when the U.S. Congress is simply unable to pass a budget. Would the United States government simply grind to a halt? Would soldiers go out on permanent furloughs? Would grandma not get her social security check? Would millions of government employees, from poultry inspectors to airport luggage screeners, somehow not get paid? Would aid to foreign governments suddenly dry up? Would the IRS stop collecting taxes? Don’t bet on it. Such a thing would be a constitutional crisis only in the minds of those who cared enough, such as lawyers, scholars and partisan activists. Most Americans, I suspect, would shake their heads and probably support the actions of any president who kept the government working. Even as they tell phone pollsters they oppose the president. Even as they vote for the opposition.

And those same Americans would pay their taxes. They would tell everyone to pay their taxes. Not paying taxes would be "resistance to lawful authority" and the mark of bad citizenship. There might be a residual Anglo-Saxon sympathy for any refusniks, but that would be tempered by a belief in the state and the legitimacy of all state action, a belief that would give state action — including murderous violence — the benefit of all doubt.

Bismarck eventually got a compliant parliament, one that ratified several years of his budgets after the fact. But that’s because his strategy of waging wars, using nationalism to cultivate the liberal and Progressive nationalists (who all believed in a unified state anyway), was very successful. The current U.S. regime has not been so fortunate, but not for lack of trying. Maybe Bush should have attacked Denmark instead of Iraq.

The truth is we are all Prussians now.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a seminarian and freelance editor living in Chicago. Visit his blog.