“Bureaucracy.” Please don’t click out.
Yes, on a scale from zero to reading the dictionary before bed, “bureaucracy” as a concept is a total snooze fest.
But I promise, this one is super interesting.
Don’t believe me? When you think of German history, what do you think of?
Yeah, me too.
But what if I told you, more than mustachioed psychos, bureaucracy is the single most important concept for understanding German history. The weird piece at the heart of the German puzzle that explains basically everything from why Germany started two world wars and perpetrated a massive, mechanized genocide, to why Germany today is one of the greatest places in the world to live.
It’s just bureaucracy, all the way down. So, uh, thanks for not clicking out, and let’s get into it.
This is the story of how bureaucracy made Germany, for better…and for worse.
I: DEEP ROOTS
Bureaucracy is just a fancy word for an organized administrative structure, and when it comes to government bureaucracies, there are two types: civil and military.
In Germany’s case, both predate…Germany. Their stories begin in a little kingdom in modern Germany’s northeast, known as Prussia, in the year 1618, with the outbreak of…The Thirty Years War, wherein Prussia switches sides three times and gets invaded repeatedly.
Yeah, it was a bad time, and when the war wrapped up, you guessed it, 30 years later, Prussia’s new ruler Frederick William knew something had to change. Not only did Prussia need a strong army, it needed to centralize power instead of splitting it between dozens of nobles.
While he got things started with a standing army and formal civil and military bureaucracies, it was his grandson, also Frederick William who really sorted things out.
Now, this guy was a bona-fide psycho. Honestly, the anecdotes are just too messed up to go into, but check out his wikipedia after the video, if you want. Crazy.
Anyways, besides being a psycho tyrant to his family and friends, he replaced his palace’s garden with a military drill yard, its first floor with government offices, and he set to work ruthlessly professionalizing the increasingly powerful military and civil bureaucracies.
By the time he was done, Prussia was less a country with an army and more an army…with a country. He had made Prussia the model of meritocratic civil and military bureaucracies, and his son, Frederick the Great, would go on to have even more success, leading Prussia to victory after victory in the Seven Years’ War.
But with Prussia in an increasingly secure position, meritocracy soon fell by the wayside, as Frederick’s successors began playing favorites. The structure of a powerful bureaucracy remained, but competency was no longer the order of the day.
II: EFFECTIVE REFORM
Now the history buffs watching may have heard of this AVERAGE HEIGHT French General, Napoleon Bonaparte. Well, that de-meritocratized Prussian military is about to make his acquaintance…painfully.
GREETINGS FROM SUNNY JENA-AUERSTEDT…Dearest Josephine, I just absolutely destroyed the Prussian army, LOL. Seriously, it’s gonna take them years to recover from this. They may even have to reform their entire government. My return may be sooner than I thought. Love, Napoleon.
Yeah, it was pretty bad. And reform was quick to follow. After all, it was civil and military bureaucratic rot that ruined Prussian odds, and so Frederick William III needed to get the bureaucracy back to its meritocratic roots.
Step one was kicking the nobles out of government, which he did by abolishing their legal privileges and requiring college degrees for all civil servants. Step two was reforming the universities to ensure that they were churning out quality candidates for the state’s administration.
But there was one problem. As the Prussian bureaucracy was re-elevated to importance, Frederick William III — who was not quite as…forceful as Fredericks past — failed to totally get a handle on it. He was still the king, but the once again increasingly competent bureaucracy matched its improvement with increasing power, not just over the nobles but over the king himself.
Instead of fickle despotism, Prussians increasingly came to receive and expect fairly standardized treatment from the state, thanks to this professional bureaucracy. And when they didn’t get it, they could even sue the government, often winning redress for mistreatment.
This was by no means rule of law, but this more independent, impersonal, and efficient bureaucracy was just what Prussia needed to start playing catch-up with the rest of Europe: developing a strong, centralized state, and enshrining property rights to get industrialization moving.
III: DANGEROUS AMBITION
But to really compete in Europe, Prussia couldn’t modernize alone, and in 1871, they led Germany’s unification. By this point, nothing was more modern than a bit of democracy, so this new Germany had to have a parliament.
But what looked like democratization was less than it was cracked up to be. The electoral system favored conservatives, and this new parliament’s leaders couldn’t even make appointments appointments to the most powerful bureaucracies.
Now, this insulated bureaucracy was really effective at driving the country’s modernization. By the outbreak of World War I, the civil side of the bureaucracy had delivered—Germany’s manufacturing output overtook Britain’s.
On the military side, though, bureaucratic independence would prove disastrous—to the German people and, well, the whole world. Military officials, free of constraints, pursued an aggressive buildup that fueled an arms race across Europe. When war broke out in 1914, the German parliament merely gave its seal of approval to a development years in the making.
Of course, things didn’t turn out so well for Germany, and in the aftermath the Weimar Republic was born. Constitutionally, Weimar was way more democratic than the German Empire had been, but again, the bureaucracy stood apart from politics, eager to obstruct change. Staffed by old-regime loyalists, it threw wrench after wrench into the workings of the new order, until Weimar collapsed in the face of one of the greatest totalitarian terrors in human history—Nazism.
But while the new Nazi regime filled the military with loyalists, they were content to maintain the existing civil bureaucracy, trusting not only that it would be permissive of their appalling program, but vital to achieve the horrifying degree of efficiency demanded in its execution. In doing so, they left in place a structure that would endure beyond the horrors of World War II.
A full 81% of those Prussian civil servants were members of the Nazi Party, so when the victorious Allies occupied Germany in 1945, they were out of a job. The Prussian bureaucracy, the anchor of the German state, was gone.
But unfortunately, that left a massive hole in the country’s governing apparatus. It was going to be difficult to run a country without a qualified bureaucracy. So, by 1951, in the now partitioned western Germany, the purge was largely reversed. Of the 53,000 initially out of a job, only about 1,000 civil servants were permanently barred from government employment.
While such a move was unquestionably distasteful, the bureaucracy would be, for the first time in German history, under meaningful democratic control. This blunted the dangerous independence and ambition of German civil and military administrators. Instead, the bureaucracy was turned towards the provision of public goods, the maintenance of liberal rights, and policies that would make West Germany one of the twentieth century’s greatest economic miracles.
At the same time, it maintained the distance from politics that good administration needs for the sake of continuity and impartiality. Since the end of the second world war, the German bureaucracy has been one of the core reasons that Germany remains one of the world’s most successful democracies.
Of course, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Other states’ bureaucracies have pulled ahead of Germany’s along a series of key metrics, as the ranks of the German civil service—embodying its centuries-enduring conservatism—have grown older without giving up their posts, unwilling to undertake modernization efforts such as digitization. As with all things, success today does not guarantee success tomorrow and, as we’ll see, Prussia and Germany’s bureaucratic path is not the only—perhaps not even the best—route to democratization and political modernity.
V: STILL ALIVE
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger — an inspiring, if cheesy, slogan, but one which may fit nothing more aptly than the German bureaucracy.
After the horrors of the Thirty Years War and crushing defeat at the hands of Napoleon, bureaucracy was Prussia’s lifeline. Bureaucracy enabled Germany’s unification, propelled it toward destruction in the first world war, then stood above the ashes as the sole imperial survivor of the Weimar transformation. And as Nazis infested the nation and wrought terror upon millions, it was bureaucracy that enabled the horror but avoided almost all consequences and survived to the present day. Bureaucracy without democracy is effective, but dangerous. With democracy, it’s the bulwark of individual rights and quality public goods.
But it’s also worth noting that Germany’s path to modernity, from bureaucratic militarism to democracy, isn’t the only one. Indeed, as the political theorist Francis Fukuyama—whose work is the bedrock of this video—writes, “There is no broad correlation between war and high-quality modern government. War has merely been an enabling condition for a certain subset of countries.”
Sometimes democracy precedes effective bureaucracy, as in nations such as the United States. When it does, good governance is slower to emerge, if it ever does. For democracy’s advocates, that presents a real dilemma—is it better to get effective governance before democracy, even if there’s a risk of abuse? Or is self-rule the only object, even if it means poor governance?
The answer is far from clear, but as with so many things, understanding the contours of such a dilemma is a crucial first step.
Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay, ch. 4. ↩︎
Wikipedia, Frederick William I of Prussia. ↩︎
Fukuyama, Political Order, ch. 4. ↩︎
Fukuyama, Political Order, ch. 4. ↩︎
Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947, by Christopher Clark (Harvard University Press: 2009), 556-561; Political Order and Political Decay, 77. NB: The Reichstag (parliament) of imperial Germany was elected by universal manhood suffrage, but the imperial German bureaucracy was not actually the locus of political power in the country, even up to World War I. True power lay with the Prussian bureaucracy, which exercised a high degree of administrative control over the formerly sovereign German states in addition to its own territories. The Prussian bureaucracy was subject to some oversight by the Prussian Landtag (subnational parliament), but this institution was elected not through universal manhood suffrage but three separate “classes” graded by property holding. It was heavily biased towards wealthy and conservative interests and in no way met the modern standards of modern democratic elections. ↩︎
Paul Kennedy, Rise and Fall of Great Powers, 200-202. ↩︎
Fukuyama, Political Order, 77-78. ↩︎
Iron Kingdom, 630-634. ↩︎
Iron Kingdom, 640-643. ↩︎
Fukuyama, Political Order, 78. ↩︎
Ibid., 78-79. ↩︎
Ibid., 80. ↩︎
Germany GDP per capita, 1945-2018, Our World in Data. ↩︎
Steven Beardsley, “Germany's aging bureaucracy risks undermining ambitions,” in Deutsche Welle, 22 February 2023. ↩︎
Fukuyama, Political Order, ch. 4. ↩︎
Europe Continent Map by Vemaps.com