18 January 2009

A special Day in German History

Since I was born abroad and grew up in foreign countries, I never got to 'enjoy' the Irish school system. And from what I know of it by now - as an adult who has been a part-time teacher and lecturer both in secondary schools and third-level colleges - I am rather glad that I got my education in countries that take the matter more serious than Ireland.

As a historian I was surprised and quite shocked when I first found out that European History in Irish secondary schools begins only in 1870, with the Franco-Prussian War. This means that Irish children are denied the knowledge of nearly two millennia of mainstream history, which includes many major events, great political, social and intellectual developments, crucial wars and important leaders and thinkers from many nations.

The Roman and Byzantine Empire, the Crusades, the Hanseatic League, the Age of Reformation, the Thirty-Years War, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars - to name only the most significant periods - are not introduced to Irish children in secondary school. Thus they have no real notion about people like Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, Charlemagne, Godfrey de Bouillon, Charles the Bold, Emperor Maximilian, Jan Hus, Erasmus, Wallenstein, Louis XIV, Prince Eugene of Savoy, Frederick the Great or even Napoleon - to name but a few.

In my opinion this is a sad and irresponsible shortfall, which has implications on everyone who ever went through the Irish school system. Their view on the world as a whole and on history in particular is very limited.
But I suppose this is the conditioning one needs to be able to be strongly interested in various players of Football, Golf or other pointless sports, which take a lot of time, attention and money from many Irish people, especially men.

However, since European History begins for Irish people in 1870, most of my readers will be familiar with the significance of this day - January 18th - in German history. Having defeated the much larger French army in several decisive battles during the second half of 1870, Prussia - supported by other German states (especially Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden) - emerged as the surprise victor from this war, which marked the end-point of a seven-year period of short wars (the first one in 1864 against Denmark) and ever stronger domination of Prussia inside the German Union (the lose confederation that had replaced the old Holy Roman Empire of German Nation in 1806).

Inspired by the total defeat of France, the various German kingdoms and principalities, which had been brought even closer to Prussia through the war, decided to form a new unified national state called the German Empire (Deutsches Reich). It began its official existence on January 18th, 1871 with the proclamation of Prussia's King William as Emperor William I of Germany.

This proclamation (pictured above) took place in the famous palace of Versailles on the outskirts of Paris, once the home of the French kings. Paris itself surrendered ten days later, but France had lost the war already by September 1870, when after the battle of Sedan the main field force under Marshal MacMahon surrendered to the Germans. Among the 83,000 prisoners of war was Emperor Napoleon III himself.

France, then the second Napoleonic empire, declared war on Prussia alone on July 19th, 1870, in the - as it turned out wrong - assumption that its stronger and superior army could beat the Prussians and re-establish French domination on the continent (as well as restore the fading popularity of the emperor at home). The French army had just finished equipping all its units with the new Chassepot rifle, which had a clear technical superiority over the Dreyse rifle used by Prussia, and also a greater range. On top of that France employed a new invention called the 'mitrailleuse', a multi-barrelled salvo gun which was a fore-runner of the modern machine gun.
The Prussians and the other German armies had no such salvo guns, but instead new Krupp steel cannons, the most advanced artillery in the world at that time. This superior artillery, together with the better training and organisation of Prussian and German troops, crippled the French army within a few weeks. Having started the war with invading Germany and trying to occupy a major German city near the border, the French army was soon forced to retreat to its fortress Metz, where 140,000 troops under the command of Marshal Bazaine were sitting idle until they surrendered as well shortly before the end of hostilities.

The traditional rivalry between the French and the Germans goes back to the year 843 (two dozen years before my own family appeared on the scene) when - after the death of Emperor Charlemagne - his lands were divided between his three sons.
This laid the foundations of modern France and modern Germany as national states. The buffer state between them was Burgundy (home of my ancestors), which established the traditions that are today carried on by Belgium and Luxembourg. Only after World War II, more than eleven centuries later, the two nations of France and Germany developed a new and friendly relationship, which became the core element of the EU.

But for the Germans, and especially Prussians, the 18th of January has an even deeper meaning than being the day when the second German empire was proclaimed, just 18 weeks after the second French empire had collapsed with the capture of Napoleon III. The date of the 1871 proclamation was chosen by Prussia's Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck very carefully and deliberately.
January 18th, 1871 marked the 170th anniversary of the proclamation of the Kingdom of Prussia. By selecting the same day for the foundation of the second empire, Bismarck created an emotional and historical bond of great strength between the two events.

Way back - on January 18th, 1701 - Prince-Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg (pictured left) stood in the great castle of Königsberg in East-Prussia (since 1944 occupied by Russia and called Kaliningrad), which had been the headquarters of the Teutonic Order of Knights since 1457 and seat of the secular Duchy of Prussia since 1525.
Ignoring the local bishop, who had been summoned for a ceremony, the Prince took a newly created crown, put it on his head and thus became King Frederick I of Prussia, remembered for his love of the arts and music.
His son, Frederick-William I, was more interested in the military and thus gained the nick name 'the soldier king'. With great energy and a lot of money he created a large and strong army and enjoyed watching his regiments on the drill ground and on parades. But he would hardly ever send them to war, as he did not like damage done to his 'favourite toy'.

Prussia's third king - Frederick II (pictured right) - combined the passions and interests of his father and grandfather and added to them great courage and high strategic and administrative skills. Under his rule there was little time for the drill and parade grounds, as Prussia fought a number of major wars, including the Seven-Years War, and every last man - the king included - was needed in the field.

Between winning battles, Frederick II loved to play music, especially the flute, and he composed a large number of musical pieces, many of which are still played today. He reformed and modernised the structure of his state, created the modern civil service with a special loyalty ethos, and found the time to oversee the construction of some of the finest buildings in central Europe, including the palace of Sanssouci (photo below), which he modelled on Versailles.

Frederick II was also an active philosopher, who was in regular discussion (by correspondence as well as through personal meetings) with Voltaire, the greatest French philosopher of the 18th century. We still know and remember the man as Frederick the Great.

Due to the low standards of our history teaching, today few people know of these great people and events, and of the double significance of January 18th for Germany, the largest of our EU partners. So I thought I will bring them back to common memory, on a day when nothing much is happening in Ireland, except that it is a rather cold, wet and unpleasant day with high winds up to storm force 10 and 11. In other words, a day to stay at home, keep the fire burning and spend the time with plenty of tea, a pipe, a good book and some history.

The Emerald Islander


Dan Sullivan said...

That thing about history only starting in 1870 must be recent because we covered the middle ages, the renaissance and reformation in European history when I was in secondary school. And we also then covered a more modern period from the mid 18th century on. It was the middle 1600s to early 19th that was somewhat short changed from what I recall.


Thanks for your comment, Dan.
The experience I mentioned above goes back a few years, but is indeed rather recent. Since I am not a professional mainstream teacher, I don't know if they changed the curriculum at some stage. But what you write suggests that they did.
In my opinion we had too many different ministers for education in recent years, and the whole concept of re-shuffling a cabinet is pretty daft.
My teaching experience on secondary level is limited to history and languages. And in both areas I was not impressed by the Irish methods and standard of knowledge, especially when one compares Ireland with a number of other EU countries I am familiar with.
Personally I believe that one needs to be aware of history as a whole time line, from the stone age to modern times, as so many things are interconnected and build on each other. Let us hope that the Dept. of Education will see the light some day. And in the meantime people can always augment the school learning with reading historical books at home and in the library. I did that throughout my school years, even though I did get the whole history in the class room.
Additionally I was very lucky to have a good number of ancestors who were involved in making history, and a grandfather who was a living element of history in the making. This was highly motivating and put me on the way at a very early age. And I have never left that path.

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