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Prussia (with a P!)

Located on the Baltic just northeast of Poland lay Prussia (with a P that is pronounced). Just west of Poland lay Brandenburg. In the days of the Holy Roman Empire, electors of the same family governed the two provinces, even though they were not geographically connected. As the Thirty Years’ War raged in Europe, Brandenburg and Prussia fell victim to the same devastation and destruction as other German states. The population of both states declined and agriculture struggled to feed those who survived. The governing bodies, known as estates, in Brandenburg and Prussia as well as in other states suffered huge losses in power and numbers because of the war, opening the door for an opportunistic and ambitious young leader to take the fate of these two lands into his own hands.

The Hohenzollerns

The Hohenzollern family ruled as first among equals in both Brandenburg and Prussia at the time of the Thirty Years’ War. The Brandenburg Hohenzollerns were electors of the Holy Roman Empire while the Prussians were just nobles.

When the Prussian Hohenzollerns went by the wayside in 1618, the Brandenburg Hohenzollerns inherited Prussia. For just over 20 years, Brandenburg and Prussia, along with some other scattered German holdings inherited about the same time as Prussia, suffered through the war. Because of the war, the estates rarely met, though they did theoretically retain some power.

In 1640, Frederick William (1620-1688) became the elector of Brandenburg. Frederick decided to stop being the whipping boy of Germany and create a powerful state by uniting his holdings under one central government. Standing in his way were the estates. The estates of Brandenburg and Prussia consisted of junkers, who were the only ones allowed to levy taxes. The junkers, especially after the war, resisted Frederick William’s efforts to unite the states and exert his control. After 20 years of back and forth between the estates and Frederick William, the estates gave in, first in Brandenburg and then in Prussia. Frederick William eventually won power over the estates.

Define Your Terms

The junkers were landowning nobility in Prussia.

Fredericks, Fredericks Everywhere

Using the same technique Ferdinand III used in Austria after the war, the Great Elector built a standing army to maintain control over his three holdings. To pay for the army, the Great Elector needed to raise taxes. Using the threat of his military, he forced the estates to approve his taxes, then used his military to collect the taxes and

Would You Believe?

Frederick William, formerly known as the elector of Brandenburg, adopted for himself a name more becoming of an up-and-coming leader: Frederick William the Great Elector.

punish those who didn’t pay. That confrontation marked the beginning of the end for the estates. With the estates no longer a problem, Frederick William the Great Elector raised taxes again and again. The income under the Great Elector tripled and the army grew to nearly 10 times its original size. Frederick William created a military state in which he controlled the military and the finances.

To keep the nobles from revolting against him, the Great Elector kept the tax burden with everyone but the landed nobility.

The Great Elector’s successor, another guy named Frederick, proved to be less interested in the military. Elector Frederick III “the Ostentatious” (1688-1713) was an artsy ruler interested more in copying Louis XIV than expanding his borders; he took the name Frederick I of Prussia upon becoming King of Prussia. The Ostentatious succeeded in building a lavish palace and patronizing the arts. As a result, the Prussian state was in for a rude awakening when Frederick William I (1688-1740) took over in 1713.

Arguably the greatest of the Hohenzollerns, Frederick William I “the Soldiers’ King” returned the Prussian state to one dominated by the military. The Soldiers’ King poured money into the military but he took a special interest in the way the army was put together. He sent his recruiters into all the cities, towns, and villages of his lands looking for tall boys and young men to be a part of the Prussian army. Frederick believed that tall soldiers possessed special qualities that other soldiers didn’t. He even created a regiment called the Grenadiers composed of giants, or soldiers who stood at least six feet tall.

Would You Believe?

Frederick William “the Soldiers' King" had a deranged fascination with and weakness for tall, uniformed soldiers. He confided that beautiful young girls had nothing on tall soldiers. Interestingly, he remained completely faithful to his wife.

Frederick’s obsession not just with soldiers but also with the military led to the development of one of the finest militaries in all of Europe. He took an army of less than 40,000 and grew it to more than 80,000, making Prussia’s one of the largest in Europe. Frederick actually had a hand in training his military. He dressed in a military uniform and personally drilled his troops. A stickler for detail, Frederick brutally punished those who broke rank or otherwise made mistakes. His absolute control over the military carried over into his politics.

The military has historically offered commoners a chance at social mobility. Frederick applied that principle to civil service during his reign and allowed numerous common Prussians to work their way to up prominent positions in his administration. The junkers resented the changes brought by Frederick, but Frederick had a solution. Rather than destroying the junkers, Frederick enlisted them and gave them command of his troops. The junkers for the most part enjoyed the opportunity to control the peasants in both the army and in civilian life.

Would You Believe?

Perhaps the most militaristic of all his contemporaries, the Soldiers' King kept his mighty Prussian state at peace during most of his years as the leader of Prussia.

Like the disciplined army he created and ruled with an iron fist, Frederick’s government proved efficient, effective, and free from corruption. Even the Prussian society grew to be highly structured and militaristic. He ruled with no major backlashes against him from within his government. The Prussian state, the military, and spirit reminded many of the militaristic Sparta.

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