"Wanderer, kommst Du nach Preußen…": Sparta as a model in Prussian military thought during the long nineteenth century

Presented at the Association for German Studies Annual Conference 2012, University of Edinburgh, 2 April 2012.

An expanded version of this paper was presented to The Guild, Cambridge University’s 19th-Century Interdisciplinary Forum, on 14 February 2012.

This paper aims to explore Sparta’s significance as a paradigm in Prussian military thought – a subject which has thus far received little scholarly attention. Analysis and discussion of a variety of sources – ranging from speeches given in Officers’ Clubs to stenographic reports of parliamentary sessions (or even turn-of-the-twentieth-century antimilitarist literature, in the form of Arthur Zapp’s Antimilitärischetendenznovellen), shows that ancient Spartan history and mores, and in particular the Spartan art of war, were often portrayed as providing useful precedents for the Prussian military. Commentators frequently saw the Officer-Corps as embodying a type of ‘new Sparta’ in Prussia, recreating a similarly militaristic and socially exclusive society in contemporary terms.

It is suggested that we can see this idealisation of and identification with Sparta in military circles as constituting a specifically military application of that philhellenism which had already become so prevalent in Prusso-German culture since the age of Winckelmann. Here, far from its habitual preserves of salon and study, Schwärmerei for Greek ideals could be usefully applied to the practical problems of barracks and battlefield.

A full version of this paper, entitled ‘”Go, tell the Prussians…”: The Spartan paradigm in Prussian military thought during the long nineteenth century’, has been published in New Voices in Classical Reception Studies ejournal, Issue 7 (2012), pp. 25-39.