By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
It’s a standard of Viennese dialect: piefke. It’s a rude, not-quite-obscene
term for a north German. Never used on a Bayer
or other south German, only on those from
the north. Berliners are definitely piefkes;
Freiburgers are not.
Most Viennese have no idea why Germans are piefkes, just that they are. The name goes
back to the 1866 Austro-Prussian War, where
it first came into widespread use among Austrian
soldiers. Johann Gottfried Piefke was a favorite
composer of Prussia’s King Wilhelm I,
well known in his own time for his stirring Preussens Gloria.
In 1864, Austria and Prussia went to war
with Denmark to wrest the German-speaking
provinces of Schleswig and Holstein from the
Danes. Austrian troops won impressive victories
at Vjele and Oeversee, and swept up the Jutland
peninsula to raise the double-eagle banner
at Skagen on its northern tip. Prussian troops
remained bogged down in front of the Danish
fortifications at Düppel, ducking when
the Danish ironclad Rolf Krake steamed
past to lob a few shells at them but otherwise
seeing no action.
Embarrassed by the Austrian victories, the
king sacked his army commander, the 80-year-old
Marshal Friedrich Heinrich Ernst, Freiherr
von Wrangel, and installed his nephew, Prince
Friedrich Karl, in command. He gave the prince
direct orders to storm Düppel and win
honors for Prussia. And he sent along a secret
weapon: his favorite composer.
Gottfried Piefke, warrior-musician.
On 18 April 1864, after a terrific artillery
bombardment, 10,000 Prussians surged forward
accompanied by what one Danish officer of
the defending 8th Brigade described as “a
terrible racket, as though a thousand cats
were being horribly murdered.” Piefke
had gathered all of the attacking force’s
regimental bands and as the soldiers went
forward, the musicians played Piefke’s
newest composition, the Düppler-Sturm-Marsch.
According to the Austrian army’s chief
observer on the scene, Emmerich Prinz zu Thurn
und Taxis, Piefke stood on a wooden platform
directing his massed band and Danish sharpshooters
began firing at him. A rifle bullet carried
away his baton and, according to the prince,
Piefke did not miss a beat as he drew his
dagger and continued to lead the march.
Among Austrian officers, the Thurn und Taxis
report generated howls of laughter. Exactly
why they found this so hilarious is hard to
explain almost a century and a half later; as generations change,
so do the finer points of cultural humor.
Prussian military culture in general struck
the Austrians as dour and overly serious,
a peacetime army trying to make up for its
lack of Austria’s battle experience.
The constant reading of military manuals instead
of the novels preferred by Austrian officers,
the playing of tactical kriegspiel instead
of the card games beloved by the Kaiser’s
men, even their choices of food, wine and
music, made the Prussians seem alien and strange.
A Prussian bandmaster turning music into a
military exercise, directing it with a weapon,
perfectly fit the stereotype.
An American edition of the Düppler-Sturm-Marsch.
Thurn und Taxis, a just-promoted cavalry
general, had done much to create this image
with his reports from Prussian headquarters,
describing Piefke as “the Prussianist
Prussian.” While Austria commissioned
commoners in the cavalry, Prussia did not,
and Thurn und Taxis took a perverse joy in
evoking haughty responses from Prussian Junkers.
Inviting newly-met Prussian colleagues to
dinner or social events, he would await the
standard response — that no Junker could
associate with a commoner while off duty —
and then merrily hand over his greeting card,
bearing the most noble of pedigrees outside
the ruling families themselves.
At home, where the prince was a fixture on
the social circuit, “Piefke” quickly
became the term of choice for an overly serious,
overbearing Prussian military aristocrat.
Excerpts of his reports appeared in the newspaper Wiener Fremdenblatt. Several online encyclopedias,
those fonts of invented knowledge, claim that
the term only came into use late in the 1866
war, when Viennese children spotted Gottfried
Piefke and his brother Rudolf leading a Prussian
military parade north of Vienna and screamed
that, “the Piefkes are coming!”
That incident may have taken place —
but then, how would children recognize the
Piefke brothers? The term appears to have
been used by troops during the war, particularly
among Vienna’s 4th “Deutschmeister”
Infantry Regiment, though references to it
are few and could be the result of later memory
tainting original events. After the war it
definitely became a solid part of a Viennese’s
catalog of insults alongside ru’arm and surmschädler; in the late 1980s among
the Vienna Vikings of the Austrian American
Football League we certainly used it liberally.
Inspired by the music, or trying to
escape it? The piefkes storm Düppel,
18 April 1864.
Gottfried Piefke was at the Battle
of Königgrätz, and commemorated
the event with another march.
His name lives on, becoming especially popular
in Vienna in the 1980s as German tourism in
Austria increased. In western Austria, piefke is also heard (and became the basis for an Austrian television series in the 1990's), but the Bavarian Preiss for
“Prussian” (sometimes ScheissPreiss or “shit-Prussian”) remains popular
as well. Because no people on the planet suffer
from a shortage of insults for their neighbors.
Fight the piefkes! Click
here to order Battles of 1866: Frontier Battles now!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold is no piefke.