Prussian virtues (German: preußische Tugenden) refers to the virtues associated with the historical Kingdom of Prussia, especially its militarism and the ethical code of the Prussian army, but also bourgeois values as influenced by Calvinism in particular. It has also significantly influenced wider German culture, such as the contemporary German stereotypes of efficiency, austerity and discipline.
These virtues, while traced back to the Teutonic knights, were named by King Frederick William I of Prussia, the "soldier–king" and frugal "bourgeois" reformer of Prussian administration, as well as from his son, Frederick the Great. The father had taken over an over-indebted public budget and saw himself as a moral role model, while the son saw himself as an exemplar of reason for the religiously, ethnically, and linguistically diverse Prussian state. The extended Prussian territory was home to Protestant, Catholic and Jewish subjects, of Germans, Poles, Sorbs and Kashubians. Frederick William I considered himself to be a role model, while his enlightened son relied on reason and tolerance to rule his multifaceted state.
Prussia developed a highly advanced administration and legal system, as well as a loyal officer corps and a kind of common-sense patriotism gathering the subjects behind the Hohenzollern ruler. The Prussian "era of reform", from the military defeat by Napoleon I at the Battles of Jena and Auerstedt, until the Congress of Vienna in 1815, was also an important influence. These included reform of community boundaries, the army, schools, universities, and taxes, as well as the enfranchisement of Jews.
The German author and soldier Walter Flex (1887–1917) wrote "Wer je auf Preußens Fahne schwört, hat nichts mehr, was ihm selbst gehört." Translation: "He who swears on Prussia's flag has nothing left that belongs to himself."
The Prussian virtues may be summarized by the opening lines of the poem "Der alte Landmann an seinen Sohn" ("The Old Farmer to His Son") by Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty (1748–1776). The text reads as follows: "Üb' immer Treu und Redlichkeit / Bis an dein kühles Grab; / Und weiche keinen Fingerbreit / Von Gottes Wegen ab." Translation: "Practice always fidelity and honesty / Until your cool grave; / And stray not the width of one finger/ From the ways of the Lord." The poem was set to music by Mozart to a melody adapted from the aria "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" from his 1791 opera The Magic Flute. It was played daily by the carillon of the Potsdam Garrison Church where Frederick the Great was initially buried.
Since the defeat in World War II and the denazification campaign, historical German militarism has become anathema in German culture, focused on collective responsibility and atonement. At the same time, the related non-military, bourgeois virtues of efficiency, discipline and work morals remain in high standing. This has led to the concept of "Prussian virtues" being regarded with mixed feelings in modern-day Germany. Amongst the German student protests of 1968, militarist virtues were rejected as prerequisite for the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime. The term Kadavergehorsam for "blind obedience", originally a slur directed against Jesuits during the 1870s Kulturkampf, came to be used as a derogatory staple of "Prussian" military ethos. Similarly, the term Nibelungentreue ("Nibelung loyalty"), which in the German Empire had been used in a positive sense for the military virtue of absolute loyalty, came to be used derogatorily in reference to fanatical loyalty characteristic of fascism. In 1982, amid the controversy surrounding the NATO Double-Track Decision, in response to Social Democratic Party of Germany Chancellor of Germany Helmut Schmidt's call for a return to such virtues, Saarbrücken's SPD mayor Oskar Lafontaine commented that these were "perfectly suited to run a concentration camp". In 2006, the Prime Minister of Brandenburg Matthias Platzeck called for a return to Prussian virtues, citing "good basic virtues, such as honesty, reliability, and diligence".