Throughout the 18th century and the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Kingdom of Prussia terrified rulers from Madrid to Moscow. The discipline of the Prussian army surpassed all other armies in Europe. Though smaller than the French or Russian armies, the Prussian army blunted attacks from Russia, Austria, and France in the 7 years war in one of the greatest defensive feats known to history. After a brief decline during the Napoleonic era, the Prussians surged back in the mid-19th century, winning wars against Austria and France and eventually unifying all of Germany in 1871. Prussian success can be attributed to many factors – a resilient people, a history of military tradition, and great leaders – but it can also be attributed to the Prussian use of industry and technology, especially in the wake of Prussia’s defeat at the hands of Napoleon in 1806.
Though Prussia would not become an industrial powerhouse until it grew into the German Empire, the seeds of Prussian industrialization were planted in 1815. Prussia (and Northern Germany as a whole) was rich in natural resources, with iron and coal mines springing into existence during the 1810s and 1820s. The government also undertook reform during this time, particularly in terms of education – by 1830, Prussian primary schooling was free, and teaching was recognized as a profession. Prussian schooling focused primarily on discipline – helping to forge a strong national identity – but also involved science and technology, a new concept at the time. In 1818, the Prussians adopted a common market – and by 1833, this market had been extended to all German-speaking lands (with the exception of Austria).
Prussian (and, by extension, German) development began to rapidly speed up in the 1840s and 1850s. By 1845, 2000 kilometers of railway had been constructed in Germany, and this increased to 8000 kilometers by 1855. Prussia also imported technical experts from Great Britain (the most industrialized nation on Earth at the time) to aid in railway construction. “Trunk lines” were constructed between every major German city, helping to create an industrial common area among the German states. Urbanization also followed, as higher crop yields enabled citizens to move out of farms and into cities. Coal output was at 2 million tons per year in 1860, a figure which would grow to 22 million tons by 1880. The government also encouraged research into new military technologies, such as faster-reloading rifles and means of long-distance communication. This research paid dividends to the Prussian government – first in 1866, when Prussia triumphed against Austria, and again in 1870-1871, when the Prussians inflicted a humiliating defeat upon the French. In both of these wars, the speed of Prussian mobilization was shocking – Prussian troops could arrive at the front line, en masse, while the opposing army was barely trickling in towards the battlefield. These two victories led directly to the unification of Germany (under Prussian rule) in 1871.
Technological progress in the Prussian-dominated German Empire skyrocketed from 1871-1914. Industrial output increased by a factor of five in a mere 44 years. Coal production increased by 400%, and the amount of railway in Germany tripled, going from 21,000km to 63,000km (the largest network in Europe). The German government heavily subsidized industrialization, and Germany was second only to the United States in terms of steel production by 1900. The Imperial German government also made tremendous strides in the sciences – Germany produced seven Nobel laureates in chemistry and six Nobel laureates in physics between 1901 and 1918. Germany had complete domination over the chemical industry, producing 90% of the global supply of synthetic dyes by 1913. Germany’s massive industrial base lended itself to military production – in 1897, Germany began to dramatically expand its navy, forcing the British Empire to match German naval production. This arms race, along with the rise of Germany as a continental power, has often been called one of the many factors contributing to the first World War.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Germany fielded the strongest land army in Europe, with a navy only eclipsed by the British navy and an industrial base only surpassed by that of the United States. German forces managed to occupy large parts of France – though they failed to reach Paris – and forced a Russian capitulation by 1917. However, Germany was allied with two powers in decline – the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were both on the brink of ethnic collapse. This, combined with America’s entry into the war in 1917, the failure of the German Spring Offensive in March of 1918, and the British blockade of Germany led to major socioeconomic pressure in Germany by the end of 1918. Tensions eventually reached a breaking point, and as German armies retreated, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the throne on November 9, 1918, and the German Empire was dissolved. World War I ended two days later.
Prussia, and the German Empire, were absolutist monarchies. But they most certainly had a technocratic nature. From 1870-1914, Germany had utter dominance over the fields of physics and chemistry. It underwent rapid industrialization, escalating from an agrarian society to a fully industrial society in merely 100 years. This can be attributed, at least in part, due to the German government’s willingness to subsidize science and industry.
Perhaps modern governments have much to learn from the Prussians. Prussia’s industrialization took it from a 2nd-rate power to a global giant in a mere century. Developments such as the Haber process and the construction of heavy rail and industry were crucial in turning Germany into a powerhouse of a state – these new technologies gave Germany a critical edge over other nations. In the same way, new technologies such as AI, quantum computing, superconductors, and reusable orbit-capable rockets have the potential to grant immense power to nations who develop these technologies. In the 21st century, moreso than the 19th or 20th centuries, technology will be more important in determining who emerges atop the global stage.