Kurt Petzold, a large but gentle-looking man who teaches history at Humboldt University on the communist side of Berlin, still winces when he recalls the "Prussian school" he went to as a boy.
A Prussian school, he explained during a recent interview, was an intimidating place where the children of Germany's solid middle classes -- administrators, postal officers, teachers -- were force-fed obedience. Petzold attended during World War II.
"When written papers were handed back," he said, "all those with the worst grades had to stand. Those whose fathers were not fighting in the Army could then sit down. But those left standing were beaten up one by one."
"The teacher would tell us he was representing the father who was off fighting," Petzold added, and noted as an afterthought that his teacher had been "an average sort of person, not a particularly brutal man."
Across town in an apartment on the western side of Berlin, the journalist and author Sebastian Haffner, who has written a West German bestseller about Prussia, declared with a mix of nostalgia and lately rekindled pride, "I am a Prussian."
Born and schooled in Berlin, onetime capital city of the now-defunct state, Haffner said, "I can still imagine what it meant to be a Prussian. It was an odd combination of things -- of discipline and duty to the state on the one hand, but also a certain liberty in thought and religion on the other. It was a curious mixture of state authority and liberalism. It was a warlike state that demanded high taxes. But its Black Eagle order also had as a motto, 'To each his own.' For this, I have an empathetic feeling."
Prussia no longer exists as a place with official boundaries. Until recently, it seemed to have been largely forgotten. The old state, whose territory once stretched from what is now West Germany through East Germany and Poland to sections of the Soviet Union, was formally dissolved in 1947 by the allied powers, which tended to regard Prussia as the dark source of German aggression.
But Prussia could never be erased from the memories of Germans who, like Haffner and Petzold, had drawn their values and early views from its traditions. Those memories recently have been dusted off as Germany, both West and East, warily has turned back toward Prussia in an uncertain retrospective.
Predictably, the revival has been more demonstrative, commercial and confused in West Germany, where a run of books, seminars and television series about Prussia has come this year. The material surveys three centuries of Prussian rule, from its 17th century origins as a feudal kingdom to the demise of the Third German Reich.
The general aim of the revival seems to be to weigh the expansionary militaristic drive of the former state against the positive internal reforms that were produced, and to come up with a view of Germany's past that is not all bleak.
In Berlin, focal point for the renaissance, a 2,500-piece exhibition about Prussia has been drawing large crowds since August. Oddly enough, however, there is no special anniversary tied to the show.
What prompted it, and in turn triggered the revival all over West Germany, was a politically inspired plan by a former Berlin mayor to boost the city's pride by outdoing two earlier German dynastic revival exhibitions, on the Staufers in Stuttgart and the Wittelsbachers in Munich. But the one on Prussia ended up touching an especially sensitive national interest.
"For 30 years in Germany, Prussia was ignored," said Haffner. "It was neither glorified nor damned. The current interest, I think, comes from a deep desire to express what had long been buried."
It also comes at a time of German economic and political distress and a widely felt sense of malaise in the country, which makes an appeal to the old Prussian virtues of discipline, order and industriousness all the more revivifying.
In any case, the new interest in Prussia here is being followed with a measure of understandable distrust by Germany's neighbors -- particularly Poland -- that have known Prussian domination. The Soviet press has grumbled some about West Germany's reglorification of Prussia, and went so far as to impute a kinship between the old Prussian Junker class and today's supporters of NATO arms modernization programs.
But one of the fascinating aspects of the revival, overlooked by the Soviets although not by the Poles, is its simultaneous occurrence in communist-led East Germany. This development may be the most significant, given earlier efforts by the East Berlin leadership to deny Prussia and picture it as an enemy of Marxism.
An East German historian, Ingrid Mittenzwei, seemed to signal the official green light for positive communist studies about Prussia when she declared in an essay two years ago, "Prussia, not just Weimar, is part of our history."
With small gestures, the government appears to be supporting this claim. A two-story-tall equestrian statue of Frederick the Great, the most celebrated of Prussian kings, was restored last winter to its prominence in the middle of East Berlin's Unter den Linden avenue. The statue had been removed in 1950 to relative obscurity in a corner of Potsdam. Welcoming its return, East German Communist Party leader Erich Honecker even referred to Frederick as "the Great."
There have been other signs: East Germany celebrated the 200th anniversary this year of the birth of the Prussian architect Karl-Friedrich Schinkel. A statue of the Prussian reformer Freiherr Heinrich F. K. vom Stein appeared recently outside the East German Foreign Ministry, and the government is restoring several grand old Prussian buildings in East Berlin.
The East German interest in Prussia is often viewed in the West as a desperate copycat action by an insecure communist government that has realized a need after all to claim some German historical roots. But East German historians say the West should not read anything dramatic into the development.
Petzold gave two reasons for theheightened attention to Prussia by the communist state. First, he said, East Germans have more leisure time today to spend browsing around museums and monuments, and so are asking more questions about Germany's past for official historians to answer.
Second, East Germany embraces much of the former kingdom's real estate, and as attention to regional history has increased, Prussia naturally has emerged as an important topic of study.
"The impression in the West seems to be that we suddenly reversed our historical concept," Petzold said. "This is not the case. You must understand that we deal with one aspect of history at a time."
The Communists, at least, appear to have a better idea of what lessons they want drawn about Prussia. Particularly in the military, East Germany has shown few qualms about adopting Prussian traditions.
East German troops, for instance, goose-step when they march, and the Army's highest military decoration is named after a Prussian war minister, Gerhard David Scharnhorst, ardent support of Prussia's military alliance with Russia against France in the early 1800s.
On top of the open militarism, East Germany provides more of a sense of old Prussia than West Germany does because its people, less influenced by Western values and commanded still by the state, retain a Prussian-like discipline and subservience.
In West Germany, meanwhile, most of the talk about Prussia has amounted to a somewhat tortured debate that tries to sort the good points from the bad. Was Prussia responsible for German megalomania? Was it a historical monster that eventually gave rise to Hitler, who claimed he was the political heir to Frederick the Great, or was it an honorable bulwark for law, order and tolerance? Was it perverted in the end by German nationalists, or did it inherently pervert Germany?
Without the imperial and military ambitions of Prussia in the 18th and 19th centuries, Germany would likely not have become a great European power. Yet the 19th century unification of Germany's numerous duchies, principalities and minikingdoms -- there were 1,700 of them in 1806 -- came at the expense of their subjugation to Prussian hegemony under Otto von Bismarck.
"The meaning one can draw from Prussia is enormous, like the Bible," said Gottfried Korff, director of the Berlin exhibition, which is entitled, "Prussia -- Attempt at a Balance."
Haffner's book, the most popular West German essay on Prussia, is itself an admiring appraisal of the state. It stresses the tolerance for religion and nationality and the justice and administrative skill fostered by Prussia during the 18th century Age of Enlightenment.
The other side of Prussia is seen by Haffner largely as a corruption of the state's ideals by Bismarck, Hitler and others.
"Prussia had no German mission," Haffner says. "On the contrary, the decline of the German empire was the condition of Prussia's rise, and when Prussia allowed itself to be persuaded that it had a German mission, this became the direct cause of its death."
By the time the Prussian state was formally written off the map at the end of World War II, says Haffner, it had long been dead.