I'm reading A Military History of Germany by Martin Kitchen, and I was surprised at the description of 18th century Prussia.

The country is described as a North-Korea like military obsessed nation, with the following characteristics:

  • Kings were obsessed with the Army, and 80% of the budget was spent on the Army
  • Men were conscripted to be part of the Army at the age of 20, and the obligation never ended, so basically they were definitely taken from their homes at age 20
  • Many people injured themselves to try to escape conscription, this didn't always work as even some disabled people were made soldiers
  • Soldiers were treated so brutally and so inhumanly that everyone wanted to desert the army even at the cost of their lives
  • Any man wandering around was considered to be a deserter, so there was absolutely no freedom of movement within the Kingdom - If they were caught wandering around they'd be arrested.
  • Farmers had to give about 19 kg of each 20 kg of cereal they produced to the army as taxes, creating situations of extreme poverty
  • Nobody had any genuine loyalty to the King, actually everyone despised him
  • Many people wanted to desert, so this seriously restricted the Army, as it could only do very simple and inefficient manoeuvres in the open where it was possible to look over all soldiers constantly.

The problem with this description is that it creates a few paradoxes, such as:

  • How could Prussia generate great intellectuals such as Immanuel Kant, when all men's lives were supposed to be devoted to the army, and only the army?
  • How could people still work on farms and provide the army with food if all men were taken away from their homes?
  • How could men find wives and reproduce, if they had to spend their entire life in the army?

Considering that such paradoxes aren't explained, I seriously doubt the description made in the book, and that makes the whole book suspicious. So, how accurate is 18th century Prussia's description in that book?

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    Many, if not most, of Frederick William I's troops were foreign mercenaries, often kidnaped, rather than conscripted citizens. Also, if one conscripts 100% of the male population for any sizeable portion of their working life the capacity of the economy to support such a standing army collapses - so that claim is patently absurd. Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 1:10
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    It must be recognized that the Seven Years War was an existential one for Frederick William II's kingdom - extreme measures in the interest of survival can perhaps be expected. However by other accounts he was a very enlightened monarch by the standards of the time, and after the war's conclusion he laid the ground work for the German economic miracle that 100 years later made Prussia master of Central Europe. That seems inconsistent with Kitchen's thesis; and begs the question of what political point he is perhaps trying to argue. Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 1:15
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    The question I habe about this description is whether Kitchen proves it at any point in the book. Does he have manuskipts or diplomas to verify these assumptions?
    – kzevo1800
    Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 8:19
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    Note that lifetime conscription does not automatically imply all men were conscripted; I don't have numbers to hand but suspect it was only ever a fraction who served this way. Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 8:39
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    Are you sure you are correctly summarizing Kitchen's theses? Some statements, e.g. "Nobody had any genuine loyalty to the King, actually everyone despised him", sound so far-fetched that I doubt they accurately reflect what the book actually claims. Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 16:43

1 Answer 1


Prussia as been described as "an army with a piece of land attached." That said, some of the things implied by the book are not correct.

First, men were conscripted around age 20, but that doesn't mean that they were kept in the army until age 60. They were typically released when they exited "military age" (late twenties) and another batch of men were recruited (except for officers). In terms of finding wives, the men that had successfully completed military service were the more desirable ones (just ask the Israelis), as opposed to deserters.

Second, Prussia typically had 4% of its population in the army (e.g. 80,000 men vs. 2 million), that is 8% of its male population, and 12% of its adult male population. That's a high proportion, but not out of line with other highly militaristic states (e.g. Sweden, or the France of Louis XIV).

Third, morale was kept "relatively" high by good rations, a pound of beef per week that allowed men to eat meat twice a week. That forced civilian employers (e.g. Silesian coal mines) to provide similar rations; otherwise the men could "opt" to return to the army. It was a hardship on farmers (that is, landowners as opposed to farm workers), but those were the breaks. Many of those landowners had officered the same, or similar men in the army, so there was a certain amount of empathy.

Finally, the military system of Prussia, like later military system of Germany, fed on itself. Silesia, captured in the 1740s, was the ultimate prize, but through the 17th century, Brandenburg-Prussia kept gobbling up pieces of the northern part of the former East Germany, and (Polish) Pomerania. Each new acquisition added to the wealth of the Prussian empire, and made the burden easier to bear for the earlier members.

Regarding "philosophy," the greatest militarist, Frederick the Great, was also among the greatest philosophers, who invited France's Voltaire, to his court at Sans Souci (sic!). To a lesser degree, this was true of other Prussian kings.

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    Technically, Frederick was not much of a philosopher himself. But he certainly was a renowned patron and appreciator of philosophy. Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 16:44

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