The Original Piefke
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
January 2018

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.

Gottfried Piefke, warrior-musician.

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.

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.

An American edition of the Düppler-Sturm-Marsch.

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.

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!”

Inspired by the music, or trying to escape it? The piefkes storm Düppel, 18 April 1864.

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.

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.