Modern history


An Extraordinary Light in Germany


Viewed against the background of the misery and hopelessness of 1640, Brandenburg’s resurgence in the second half of the seventeenth century appears remarkable. By the 1680s, Brandenburg possessed an army with an international reputation whose numbers fluctuated between 20,000 and 30,000.1 It had acquired a small Baltic fleet and even a modest colony on the west coast of Africa. A land bridge across Eastern Pomerania linked the Electorate to the Baltic coast. Brandenburg was a substantial regional power on a par with Bavaria and Saxony, a sought-after ally and a significant element in major peace settlements.

The man who presided over this transformation was Frederick William, known as the ‘Great Elector’ (r. 1640–88). Frederick William is the first Brandenburg Elector of whom numerous portraits survive, most of them commissioned by the sitter himself. They document the changing appearance of a man who spent forty-eight years – longer than any other member of his dynasty – in sovereign office. Depictions from the early years of the reign show a commanding, upright figure with a long face framed by flowing dark hair; in the later images, the body has swollen, the face is bloated and the hair has been replaced by cascades of artificial curls. And yet one thing is common to all the portraits painted from life: intelligent, dark eyes that fix the viewer in a sharp stare.2

When he succeeded his father at the age of twenty, Frederick William had virtually no training or experience in the art of government. He had spent most of his childhood cloistered away in the fortress of Küstrin enclosed by sombre forests, where he was safe from enemy troops. Lessons in modern languages and technical skills such as drawing, geometry and the construction of fortifications were interspersed with the regular hunting of stag, boar and wildfowl. Unlike his father and grandfather, Frederick William was taught Polish from the age of seven to assist him in conducting relations with the Polish king, feudal overlord of Ducal Prussia. At the age of fourteen, as the military crisis deepened and a wave of epidemics spread across the Mark, he was sent to the relative safety of the Dutch Republic, where he would spend the next four years of his life.


4. Frederick William the Great Elector as Scipio, painted c. 1660, attrib. to Albert van der Eeckhout

The impact on the prince of these teenage years in the Republic is difficult to ascertain precisely, since he did not keep a diary or write personal memoirs of any kind. His correspondence with his parents confined itself to the exchange of compliments in an extremely distanced and formal diction.3Yet it is clear that the prince’s Dutch education did reinforce his sense of allegiance to the Calvinist cause. Frederick William was the first Brandenburg Elector to be born of two Calvinist parents, and the composite name Frederick William, a novelty in the history of the House of Hohenzollern, was devised precisely in order to symbolize the bond between Berlin (William was his father’s second name) and the Calvinist Palatinate of his uncle, Frederick V. Only with this generation of the Hohenzollern family did the reorientation launched by the conversion of his grandfather John Sigismund in 1613 come fully into effect. Frederick William consolidated the bond in 1646 by marrying the Dutch Calvinist Louise Henriette, nineteen-year-old daughter of Stadtholder Frederick Henry of Orange.

Frederick Williams’s long sojourn in the Dutch Republic was also influential in other ways. The prince received instruction from professors in law, history and politics at the University of Leiden, a renowned centre of the then fashionable neo-stoical state theory. The prince’s lessons emphasized the majesty of the law, the venerability of the state as the guarantor of order and the centrality of duty and obligation to the office of sovereign. A particular concern of the neo-stoics was the need to subordinate the military to the authority and discipline of the state.4 But it was outside the classroom, in the streets, docks, markets and parade-squares of the Dutch towns that Frederick William learned his most important lessons. In the early seventeenth century, the Republic was at the height of its power and prosperity. Over more than sixty years, this tiny Calvinist country had fought successfully to assert its independence against the military might of Catholic Spain and establish itself as the foremost European headquarters of global trade and colonization. In the process, it had developed a robust fiscal regime and a distinctive military culture with recognizably modern features: the regular and systematic drilling of troops in battleground manoeuvres, a high level of functional differentiation and a disciplined professional officer corps. Frederick William had ample opportunity to observe the military prowess of the Republic at close hand – he visited his host and relative, Viceroy Prince Frederick Henry of Orange, in the Dutch encampment at Breda in 1637, where the Dutch recaptured a stronghold that had been lost to the Spaniards twelve years before.

Throughout his reign Frederick William strove to remodel his own patrimony in the image of what he had observed in the Netherlands. The training regime adopted by his army in 1654 was based on the drill-book of Prince Maurice of Orange.5 Frederick William remained convinced throughout his reign that ‘navigation and trade are the principal pillars of a state, through which subjects, by sea and by manufactures on land, earn their food and keep.’6 He became obsessed with the idea that the link to the Baltic would enliven and commercialize Brandenburg, bringing the wealth and power that were so conspicuously on display in Amsterdam. In the 1650s and 1660s, he even negotiated international commercial treaties to secure privileged terms of trade for a merchant marine he did not yet possess. In the later 1670s, with the assistance of a Dutch merchant by the name of Benjamin Raule, he acquired a small fleet of ships and became involved in a string of privateering and colonial schemes. In 1680, Raule secured for Brandenburg a share in the west African trade in gold, ivory and slaves by establishing the small colonial fort of Friedrichsburg on the coast of modern-day Ghana.7

It could be said that Frederick William reinvented the Electoral office. Whereas John Sigismund and George William had addressed themselves only sporadically to the business of government, Frederick William worked ‘harder than a secretary’. Contemporaries recognized this as something new and noteworthy. His ministers marvelled at his memory for detail, his sobriety and his ability to sit for an entire day in council dealing with affairs of state.8 Even the imperial ambassador Lisola, no uncritical observer, was struck by the Elector’s conscientiousness: ‘I admire this Elector, who takes delight in long and exceedingly detailed reports and who expressly demands these of his ministers; he reads everything, he resolves and orders everything [… ] and neglects nothing.’9 ‘I shall manage my responsibility as prince,’ Frederick William declared, ‘in the knowledge that it is the affair of the people and not mine personally.’10 The words were those of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, but in the mouth of the Elector they signalled a new understanding of the sovereign’s role. It was more than a prestigious title or a bundle of rights and revenues; it was a vocation that should rightly consume the personality of the ruler. The early histories of the reign established an image of this Elector as the model of an absolute and unstinting dedication to office. His example became a potent icon within the Hohenzollern tradition, a standard that the Elector’s reigning descendants would either emulate or be measured against.


In December 1640, when Frederick William acceded to the throne, Brandenburg was still under foreign occupation. A two-year truce was agreed with the Swedes in July 1641, but the looting, burning and general misbehaviour continued.11 In a letter of spring 1641, the Elector’s viceroy, Margrave Ernest, who carried the responsibility for administering the ruined Mark, offered a grim synopsis:

The country is in such a miserable and impoverished condition that mere words can scarcely convey the sympathy one feels with the innocent inhabitants. In general, We think that the cart has been driven so deep into the muck, as they say, that it cannot be extricated without the special help of the Almighty.12

The strain of overseeing the anarchy unfolding in Brandenburg ultimately proved too much for the margrave, who succumbed to panic attacks, sleeplessness and paranoid delusions. By the autumn of 1642, he had taken to pacing about in his palace muttering to himself, shrieking and throwing himself to the floor. His death on 26 September was ascribed to ‘melancholy’.13

Only in March 1643 did Frederick William return from the relative safety of Königsberg to the ruined city of Berlin, a city he scarcely recognized. Here he found a population depleted and malnourished, and buildings destroyed by fire or in a parlous state of repair.14 The predicament that had bedevilled his father’s reign remained unsolved: Brandenburg had no military force with which to establish its independence. The small army created by Schwarzenberg was already falling apart and there was no money to pay for a replacement. Johann Friedrich von Leuchtmar, a privy councillor and the Elector’s former tutor, summarized Brandenburg’s predicament in a report of 1644: Poland, he predicted, would seize Prussia as soon as it was strong enough; Pomerania was under Swedish occupation and likely to remain so; Kleve in the west was under the control of the Dutch Republic. Brandenburg stood ‘on the edge of the abyss’.15

In order to restore the independence of his territory and press home his claims, the Elector needed a flexible, disciplined fighting force. The creation of such an instrument became one of the consuming preoccupations of his reign. The Brandenburg campaign army grew dramatically, if somewhat unsteadily, from 3,000 men in 1641–2, to 8,000 in 1643–6, to 25,000 during the Northern War of 1655–60, to 38,000 during the Dutch wars of the 1670s. During the final decade of the Elector’s reign, its size fluctuated between 20,000 and 30,000.16 Improvements in tactical training and armaments modelled on French, Dutch, Swedish and imperial best practice placed the Brandenburg army close to the cutting edge of European military innovation. Pikes and pikemen were phased out and the cumbersome matchlock guns carried by the infantry were replaced by lighter, faster-firing flintlocks. Artillery calibres were standardized to allow for the more flexible and efficient use of field guns, in the style pioneered by the Swedes. The foundation of a cadet school for officer recruits introduced an element of standardized professional formation. Better conditions of employment – including provision for maimed or retired officers – improved the stability of the command structure. These changes in turn improved the cohesion and morale of the non-commissioned ranks, who distinguished themselves in the 1680s by their excellent discipline and low rates of desertion.17

The improvised forces assembled for specific campaigns during the early years of the reign gradually evolved into what one could call a standing army. In April 1655, a General War Commissioner (General-kriegskommissar) was appointed to oversee the handling of financial and other resources for the army, on the model of the military administration recently introduced in France under Le Tellier and Louvois. This innovation was initially conceived as a temporary wartime measure and only later established as a permanent feature of the territorial administration. After 1679, under the direction of the Pomeranian nobleman Joachim von Grumbkow, the General War Commissariat extended its reach throughout the Hohenzollern territories, gradually usurping the function of the Estate officials who had traditionally overseen military taxation and discipline at a local level. The General War Commissariat and the Office for the Domains were still relatively small institutions in 1688 when the Elector died, but under his successors they would play a crucial role in toughening the sinews of central authority in the Brandenburg-Prussian state. This synergy between war-making and the development of state-like central organs was something new; it became possible only when the war-making apparatus was separated from its traditional provincial-aristocratic foundations.

The acquisition of such a formidable military instrument was important, because the decades that followed the end of the Thirty Years War were a period of intense conflict in northern Europe. Two foreign titans overshadowed Brandenburg foreign policy during the Elector’s reign. The first was King Charles X of Sweden, a restless, obsessive figure with expansionist dreams who seemed bent on trumping the record of his illustrious predecessor Gustavus Adolphus. It was Charles X’s invasion of Poland that started the Northern War of 1655–60. His plan was to subdue the Danes and the Poles, occupy Ducal Prussia and then march south at the head of a vast army to sack Rome in the manner of the ancient Goths. Instead, the Swedes became bogged down in a bitter five-year struggle for control of the Baltic littoral.

After the death of Charles X in 1660 and the ebbing of Swedish power, it was Louis XIV of France who dominated Brandenburg’s political horizons. Having assumed sole regency after the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661, Louis expanded his combined wartime armed forces from 70,000 to 320,000 men (by 1693) and launched a sequence of assaults to secure hegemony in western Europe; there were campaigns against the Spanish Netherlands in 1667–8, the United Provinces in 1672–8 and the Palatinate in 1688.

In this dangerous environment, the Elector’s growing army proved an indispensable asset. In the summer of 1656, Frederick William’s 8,500 troops joined forces with Charles X to defeat a massive Polish-Tartar army in the battle of Warsaw (28–30 July).18 In 1658, he changed sides and campaigned as an ally of Poland and Austria against the Swedes. It was a sign of Frederick William’s growing weight in regional politics that he was appointed commander of the Brandenburg-Polish-imperial allied army raised to fight the Swedes in 1658–9. A chain of successful military assaults followed, first in Schleswig-Holstein and Jutland and later in Pomerania.

The most dramatic military exploit of the reign was Frederick William’s single-handed victory over the Swedes at Fehrbellin in 1675. In the winter of 1674–5, the Elector was campaigning with an Austrian army in the Rhineland as part of the coalition that had formed to contain Louis XIV during the Dutch wars. In the hope of securing French subsidies, the Swedes, allies of the French, invaded Brandenburg with an army of 14,000 men under the command of General Karl Gustav Wrangel. It was a scenario that awakened memories of the Thirty Years War: the Swedes unleashed the usual ravages on the hapless population of the Uckermark, to the north-east of Berlin. Frederick William reacted to news of the invasion with undisguised rage. ‘I can be brought to no other resolution,’ the Elector told Otto von Schwerin on 10 February, ‘than to avenge myself on the Swedes.’ In a series of furious despatches, the Elector, who was bedridden with gout, urged his subjects, ‘both noble and non-noble’, to ‘cut down all Swedes, wherever they can lay their hands upon them and to break their necks [… ] and to give no quarter’.19

Frederick William joined his army in Franconia at the end of May. Covering over one hundred kilometres per week, his forces reached Magdeburg on 22 June, just over ninety kilometres from the Swedish headquarters in the city of Havelberg. From here, the Brandenburg command could establish through local informants that the Swedes were strung out behind the river Havel, with concentrations in the fortified cities of Havelberg, Rathenow and Brandenburg. Since the Swedes had failed to register the arrival of the Brandenburg army, the Elector and his commander Georg Derfflinger had the advantage of surprise, and they resolved to attack the Swedish strongpoint at Rathenow with only 7,000 cavalry; a further 1,000 musketeers were loaded on to carts so that they could keep pace with the advance. Heavy rain and muddy conditions impeded their progress but also concealed them from the unsuspecting Swedish regiment at Rathenow. In the early morning of 25 June, the Brandenburgers attacked and destroyed the Swedish force with only minimal casualties on their own side.

The collapse of the Swedish line at Rathenow set the scene for the Battle of Fehrbellin, the most celebrated military engagement of the Elector’s reign. In order to restore cohesion to their position, the Swedish regiment in Brandenburg City pulled back deep into the countryside with the intention of sweeping to the north-west to join up with the main force at Havelberg. This proved more difficult than they had expected, because the heavy spring and summer rains had transformed the marshes of the area into a treacherous waterland broken only by islands of sodden grass or sand and criss-crossed by narrow causeways. Guided by locals, advance parties of the Electoral army blocked the main exits from the area, and forced the Swedes to fall back on the little town of Fehrbellin on the river Rhin. Here their commander, General Wrangel, deployed his 11,000 men in defensive fashion, setting the 7,000 Swedish infantry in the centre and his cavalry on the wings.

Against 11,000 Swedes the Elector could muster only around 6,000 men (a substantial part of his army, including most of his infantry, had not yet arrived in the area). The Swedes disposed of about three times as many field guns as the Brandenburgers. But this numerical disadvantage was offset by a tactical opportunity. Wrangel had neglected to occupy a low sandhill that overlooked his right flank. The Elector lost no time in positioning his thirteen field guns there and opening fire on the Swedish lines. Seeing his error, Wrangel ordered the cavalry on his right wing, supported by infantry, to take the hill. For the next few hours the battle was dominated by the ebb and surge of cavalry charge and counter-charge as the Swedes attempted to seize the enemy guns and were thrown back by the Brandenburg horse. A metaphorical fog of war shrouds all such encounters; it was thickened on this occasion by a literal summer mist of the kind that often gathers in the marshes of the Havelland. Both sides found it difficult to coordinate their forces, but it was the Swedish cavalry that gave way first, fleeing from the field and leaving their infantry – the Dalwig Guards – exposed to the sabres of the Brandenburg horse. Of 1,200 Guards, twenty managed to escape and about seventy were taken prisoner; the rest were killed.20 On the following day, the town of Fehrbellin itself was seized from a small Swedish occupation force. There was now a great fleeing of Swedes across the Mark Brandenburg. Considerable numbers of them, more perhaps than fell on the field of battle, were hacked to death in opportunist attacks by peasants as they made their way northwards. A contemporary report noted that peasants in the area around the town of Wittstock, not far from the border with Pomerania, had slain 300 Swedes, including a number of officers: ‘although several of the latter offered 2000 thalers for their lives, they were decapitated by the vengeful peasants.’21 Memories of the ‘Swedish terror’ still vivid in the older generation played a role here. By 2 July, every last Swede who had not been captured or killed had left the territory of the Electorate.

Victories of the kind achieved at Warsaw and Fehrbellin were of enormous symbolic importance to the Elector and his entourage. In an era that glorified successful warlords, the victories of Brandenburg’s army magnified the prestige and reputation of its founder. At Warsaw, Frederick William had stood in the thick of the fighting, repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire. He wrote an account of the event and had it published in The Hague. His notes on the battle formed the basis for the relevant passages in Samuel Pufendorf’s history of the reign – a comprehensive and sophisticated work that marked a new departure in Brandenburg historiography.22 All this bore witness to a heightened historical self-consciousness, a sense that Brandenburg had begun to make – and to narrate – its own history. In his ‘royal memoirs’, a text intended for the eyes of his successor, Louis XIV observed that kings owe an account of their actions ‘to all ages’.23 The Great Elector never unfolded a cult of historicized self-memorialization to rival that of his French contemporary, but he too began consciously to perceive himself and his achievements through the eyes of an imagined posterity.

At Warsaw in 1656 the Brandenburgers had shown their mettle as coalition partners; at Fehrbellin nineteen years later the Elector’s army, though outnumbered and forced to advance at lightning speed, prevailed without aid over an enemy with an intimidating European reputation. Here too the Elector, now a stout man of fifty-five, stayed at the centre of the action. He joined his riders in assaults on the Swedish lines until he was encircled by enemy troops and had to be cut free by nine of his own dragoons. It was after the victory at Fehrbellin that the soubriquet ‘the Great Elector’first appeared in print. There was nothing particularly remarkable in that, since broadsheets extolling the greatness of rulers were commonplace in seventeenth-century Europe. But unlike so many other early-modern ‘greats’ (including the abortive ‘Louis the Great’, propagated by the sycophantic pamphleteers of the sun-king; ‘Leopold the Great’ of Austria; and ‘Maximilian the Great’, usage of which is now confined to die-hard Bavarian monarchist circles) this one survived, making Elector Frederick William the only non-royal early-modern European sovereign who is still widely accorded this epithet.

With Fehrbellin, moreover, a bond was forged between history and legend. The battle became a fixture in memory. The dramatist Heinrich von Kleist chose it as the setting for his play Der Prinz von Homburg, a fanciful variation on the historical record, in which an impulsive military commander faces a death sentence for having led a victorious charge against the Swedes despite orders to hold back, but is pardoned by the Elector once he has accepted his culpability. To the Brandenburgers and Prussians of posterity, Frederick William’s predecessors would remain shadowy, antique figures imprisoned within a remote past. By contrast, the ‘Great Elector’ would be elevated to the status of a three-dimensional founding father, a transcendent personality who both symbolized and bestowed meaning upon the history of a state.


‘Alliances are certainly good,’ Frederick William wrote in 1667, ‘but a force of one’s own, that one can confidently rely on, is better. A ruler is not treated with respect unless he has his own troops and resources. It is these, thank God, that have made me important since I have had them.’24There was much truth in these reflections, composed for the edification of the Elector’s son and successor. By the end of the Second Northern War, Frederick William was a man to be reckoned with. He was an attractive alliance partner who could command substantial subsidies. He also participated as a principal in major regional peace treaties – a distinction that had been denied to his predecessors.

But the army was just one factor in Brandenburg’s recovery and expansion after 1640. Even before he possessed an armed force capable of tipping the scales in regional conflicts, Frederick William was able to secure major territorial gains simply by playing the international system. It was only thanks to French backing that Brandenburg emerged in such a strong position from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The French, who were looking for a German client state to support their designs against Austria, helped Frederick William thrash out a compromise agreement with Sweden (a French ally), under which Brandenburg received the eastern portion of Pomerania (excluding the river Oder). Then France and Sweden joined forces in pressing the Emperor to compensate Brandenburg for the still Swedish portion of Pomerania by granting it lands from the former bishoprics of Halberstadt, Minden and Magdeburg. These were by far the most significant acquisitions of Frederick William’s long reign. After 1648, a swathe of Hohenzollern territory swept in a broad curve from the western borders of the Altmark up to the eastern end of the Pomeranian coastline – the gap between the central agglomeration of territories and Ducal Prussia narrowed to less than 120 kilometres. For the first time in its history, Brandenburg was bigger than neighbouring Saxony. It was now the second largest German territory after the Habsburg monarchy. And all this was achieved without discharging a single musket, at a time when Brandenburg’s tiny armed force still counted for little.

The same point can be made in connection with the acquisition of full sovereignty over Ducal Prussia in 1657. To be sure: the Elector’s army expanded to 25,000 men in the course of the Northern War of 1655–60. By fighting first on the Swedish and then on the Polish-imperial side, the Elector was able to prevent the powers engaged in the conflict from shutting him out of his exposed eastern duchy. After the victory at Warsaw in 1656, Charles X abandoned his plan to occupy Ducal Prussia as a Swedish fief and agreed to concede full sovereignty to Brandenburg. But once the Swedes had been driven back into Denmark, this promise became meaningless – Ducal Prussia was no longer theirs to give. The trick now was to get the Poles to follow suit and grant full sovereignty in their turn. Here again, the Elector was the beneficiary of international developments beyond his control. A crisis in relations between the Polish Crown and the Russian Tsar meant that the lands of the Commonwealth were exposed to Russian assaults. The King of Poland, John Casimir, was thus eager to separate Brandenburg from Sweden and to neutralize it as a military threat.

By a further coincidence, Emperor Ferdinand III died in April 1657, meaning that Frederick William could trade his Electoral vote for concessions over Ducal Prussia. The Habsburgs duly pressed the Polish king to grant the Elector’s demand for sovereignty over Ducal Prussia, urgings that carried considerable weight, since the Poles were counting on Austrian assistance in the event of a renewed Swedish or Russian attack. In a secret treaty signed at Wehlau on 1 September 1657, the Poles agreed to cede Ducal Prussia to the Elector ‘with absolute power and without the previous impositions’. The Elector promised in turn to help John Casimir against Sweden.25 Nothing could better illustrate the intricacy and geographical scope of the mechanisms that shaped Brandenburg’s opportunities. The fact that Frederick William had by now assembled sufficient troops under his command to be a useful ally was an important enabling factor in this outcome, but it was the international system rather than the Elector’s own efforts that settled the question of sovereignty in his favour.

Conversely, the unilateral application of military force – even when it was successful in military terms – was of little avail in cases where Brandenburg’s objectives were not underwritten by the broader dynamics of the international system. In 1658–9, Frederick William commanded an extremely successful joint Austrian-Polish-Brandenburg campaign against the Swedes. There was a long chain of successful military assaults, first in Schleswig-Holstein and Jutland and later in Pomerania. By the time the campaign of 1659 was over, Brandenburg troops controlled virtually all of Swedish Pomerania, excluding only the coastal cities of Stralsund and Stettin. But these successes did not suffice to secure the Elector a permanent foothold in the disputed portion of his Pomeranian inheritance. France intervened in support of Sweden, and the Peace of Oliva (3 May 1660) largely confirmed the concessions agreed at Wehlau three years before. Brandenburg thus gained nothing from the Elector’s involvement in the alliance against Sweden, apart from broader international recognition of his sovereign status in Prussia. Here was a further lesson, if any were needed, in the primacy of the system over the forces at the disposal of one of its lesser members.

Exactly the same thing happened after the victory over Sweden at Fehrbellin in 1675. In the course of an exhausting four-year campaign, the Elector succeeded in driving every last Swede out of Western Pomerania. But even this was not enough to place him in possession of his claim, for Louis XIV had no intention of leaving his Swedish ally at Brandenburg’s mercy. France, whose powers were waxing as the Dutch Wars came to an end, insisted that the conquered Pomeranian territories should be restored in their entirety to Sweden. Vienna agreed: the Habsburg Emperor had no desire to see ‘the rise of a new king of the Vandals on the Baltic’; he preferred a weak Sweden to a strong Brandenburg.26 In June 1679, after much impotent raging, the Elector finally renounced the claim he had fought so hard for and authorized his envoy to sign the Peace of St Germain with France.

This dispiriting conclusion to a long struggle was yet another reminder that Brandenburg was still, for all its efforts and accomplishments, a small player in a world where the big players decided the important outcomes. Frederick William had been able with some success to exploit the shifting balance of power in a regional conflict between Poland and Sweden, but he was out of his depth in a struggle in which great-power interests were more directly engaged.

Playing the system effectively meant being on the right side at the right moment, and this in turn implied a readiness to switch allegiances when an existing commitment became burdensome or inopportune. Throughout the late 1660s and early 1670s, the Elector oscillated frantically between France and Austria. In January 1670, a three-year train of negotiations and agreements culminated in a ten-year treaty with France. In the summer of 1672, however, when the French attacked the Dutch Republic, invading and plundering Kleve in the process, the Elector turned instead to Emperor Leopold in Vienna. A treaty was signed in late June 1672, by which it was agreed that Brandenburg and the Emperor would conduct a joint campaign to safeguard the western borders of the Holy Roman Empire against French aggression. In the summer of 1673, however, the Elector was once again in alliance discussions with France; by the autumn of the same year he was already gravitating back towards a new anti-French coalition centred on a triple alliance between Emperor Leopold, the Dutch and the Spaniards. The same pattern of rapid alternation can be observed during the last years of Frederick William’s reign. There was a succession of alliances with France (October 1679, January 1682, January 1684), yet at the same time a Brandenburg contingent was sent to assist in the relief of the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683. In August 1685, moreover, Frederick William signed a treaty with the Dutch Republic whose terms were largely directed against France (while at the same time assuring the French of his loyalty and pressing them to keep up with their subsidy payments).

‘[It is] in the nature of alliances,’ the Austrian military strategist Count Montecuccoli sagely observed, ‘that they are dissolved at the slightest inconvenience.’27 But even in an era that saw alliances as short-term fixes, the ‘feverish inconstancy’ (Wechselfieber) of the Elector seemed remarkable. There was method in the madness, however. In order to pay for his growing army, Frederick William needed foreign subsidies. Frequent alliance-switching forced would-be partners into a bidding war and thereby pushed up the going price for an alliance. The rapid alternation of alliances also reflected the complexity of Brandenburg’s security needs. The integrity of the western territories depended on good relations with France and the United Provinces. The integrity of Ducal Prussia depended on good relations with Poland. The safety of Brandenburg’s entire Baltic littoral depended on holding the Swedes at bay. The maintenance of the Elector’s status and the pursuit of his inheritance claims within the Empire depended upon good (or at least functional) relations with the Emperor. All these threads crossed at various points to form a neural net generating unpredictable and rapidly shifting outcomes.

Although this problem was particularly acute in the reign of the Great Elector, it did not go away after his death. Again and again, Prussian sovereigns and statesmen would face agonizing choices between conflicting alliance commitments. It was a predicament that placed considerable strain on the decision-making networks close to the throne. During the winter of 1655–6, for example, as the Elector pondered which side to back in the opening phase of the Northern War, ‘Swedish’ and ‘Polish’ factions formed among the ministers and advisers and even the Elector’s own family. The resulting mood of uncertainty and indecision prompted one of the Elector’s most powerful councillors to the observation that the Elector and his advisers ‘want what they didn’t want and do what they didn’t think they would do’28 – a charge that had also been laid at the feet of George William and would be made against various later Brandenburg sovereigns. The periodic disintegration of the policy-making establishment into factions supporting rival options would remain one of the structural constants of Prussian politics.

In switching thus from partner to partner, the Elector followed the advice of the Pomeranian Calvinist Privy Councillor Paul von Fuchs, who urged the Elector not to commit himself permanently to any one partner but always to follow a ‘pendulum policy’ (Schaukelpolitik).29 Here was an important break with the previous reign: George William, too, had alternated between Vienna and Stockholm, but only under duress. By contrast, the word Schaukelpolitik implied a conscious policy of oscillation. And this in turn implied an attenuation of the Elector’s sense of obligation to the Emperor. Successive efforts to mount a joint Brandenburg-Habsburg response to the threat from France in the 1670s had revealed that the two powers had widely divergent geopolitical interests (this problem was to dog Austro-Prussian relations well into the nineteenth century). And the Austrian Habsburg court showed on more than one occasion that it was happy to see the Elector thwarted in his ambition. Frederick William boiled with resentment at these slights: ‘You know how the Emperor and the Empire have treated us,’ he told the chief minister of his Privy Council, Otto von Schwerin, in August 1679, when Vienna supported the return of Western Pomerania to Sweden. ‘And since they were the first to leave us defenceless before our enemies, we need no longer consider their interests unless they agree with ours.’30

Yet it is also striking how reluctant the Elector was to burn his bridges with Vienna. He remained a loyal prince of the Empire, supporting the Habsburg candidate Leopold I in the imperial election of 1657 and its various preliminaries.31 The Hohenzollern eagle shown on the ensigns of seventeenth-century Brandenburg always wore a shield proudly adorned with the golden sceptre of the Imperial Hereditary Chamberlain, a mark of the Elector’s prominent ceremonial standing within the Empire. Frederick William saw the Empire as indispensable to the future well-being of his lands. The interests of the Empire were not, of course, identical with those of the Habsburg Emperor, and the Elector was perfectly aware that it might at times be necessary to defend the institutions of the former against the latter. But the Emperor remained a fixed star in the Brandenburg firmament. It was essential, the Elector warned his successor in the ‘Fatherly Instruction’ of 1667, ‘that You bear in mind the respect that You must have for the Emperor and the Empire’.32 This curious combination of a rebellious resentment of the Emperor with an ingrained respect for the ancient institutions of the Empire (or at the very least a reluctance to do away with them) was another feature of Prussian foreign policy that would endure into the late eighteenth century.


On 18 October 1663, a colourful assembly of Estates representatives gathered before Königsberg castle. They were there to swear an oath of fealty to the Elector of Brandenburg. The occasion was a solemn one. The Elector stood on a raised platform draped in scarlet cloth. Near him were four senior officials of the ducal administration, each bearing one of the insignia of his office: the ducal crown, a sword, a sceptre and a field marshal’s baton. After the ceremony, the gates of the castle courtyard were opened for the traditional display of sovereign largesse. As the people of the city crowded in to join the celebrations, chamberlains tossed gold and silver commemorative medals into the crowd. Wine – red and white from two different spouts – splashed all day from a fountain fashioned in the likeness of the Hohenzollern eagle. In the reception rooms of the palace, the Estates were entertained at twenty large tables.33

The choreography of this occasion invoked a tradition of great antiquity. The oath of fealty had been an accoutrement of sovereignty in western Europe since the twelfth century. It was a legal act by which the constitutional relationship between sovereign and subject was ‘actualised, renewed and perpetuated’.34 In time-honoured fashion, the Estates representatives swore that they would never ‘under any circumstances imaginable to man’ break their bond with the new sovereign, all the while kneeling before the Elector with the left hand laid across the chest and the right hand raised above the head with the thumb and two fingers extended. It was said that the thumb signified God the Father, the index finger God the Son and the middle finger the Holy Spirit; ‘of the other two fingers, folded down into the hand, the fourth signifies the precious soul, which is hidden among mankind, while the fifth signifies the body, which is a smaller thing than the soul’.35 A specific act of political subordination was thus merged into the permanence of man’s submission before God.

These invocations of timelessness and tradition belied the fragility of Hohenzollern authority in Ducal Prussia. In 1663, when the oath was sworn in Königsberg, the Elector’s legal sovereignty in the Duchy of Prussia was of recent vintage. It had been formally confirmed at the Peace of Oliva only three years before and had since been vigorously contested by the inhabitants. In the city of Königsberg, a popular movement emerged to resist the efforts of the Electoral administration to impose its authority. Only after a leading city politician had been arrested and Electoral cannon trained on the heart of the city could peace be restored, making way for the settlement that was solemnized in the palace courtyard on 18 October 1663. And yet, within a decade, the Electoral authorities once again faced open resistance and were forced to invest the city with troops. Not only in Ducal Prussia, but also in Kleve and even in Brandenburg itself, the decades that followed the Thirty Years War were marked by strife between the Electoral authorities and the guardians of local privilege.

There was nothing inevitable about the conflict between monarchs and estates. The relationship between the sovereign and the nobilities was essentially one of interdependence. The nobilities administered the localities and collected the taxes. They lent money to the sovereign – in 1631, for example, George William owed the Brandenburg nobleman Johann von Arnim 50,000 thalers, for which he pawned two domains to him as security.36 Noble wealth provided the collateral for crown loans and in times of war noblemen were expected to provide the prince with horses and armed men to defend the territory. During the seventeenth century, however, the relationship between the two came under increasing pressure. It seemed that conflicts between the sovereign and the Estates had become the norm rather than the exception.37

The issue was essentially one of perspective. Again and again, Frederick William had to make the case that the Estates and the regions they represented should see themselves as parts of a single whole and thus as bound to collaborate in the maintenance and defence of all the sovereign’s lands and the pursuit of his legitimate territorial claims.38 But this way of seeing things was completely alien to the Estates, who viewed the respective territories as discrete constitutional parcels, bound vertically to the person of the Elector, but not horizontally to each other. For the Estates of the Mark Brandenburg, Kleve and Ducal Prussia were ‘foreign provinces’ with no claim on Brandenberg’s resources.39 Frederick William’s wars for Pomerania, by the same token, were merely private princely ‘feuds’, for which he had – in their view – no right to sequester the wealth of his hard-working subjects.

The Estates expected from the Elector the continuation and solemn observance of their ‘especial and particular privileges, freedoms, treaties, princely exemptions, marital agreements, territorial contracts, ancient traditions, law and justice’.40 They inhabited a mental world of mixed and overlapping sovereignties. The Estates of Kleve maintained a diplomatic representative in The Hague until 1660 and looked to the Dutch Republic, the imperial diet and on occasions even to Vienna, for support against illicit interventions from Berlin.41 They frequently conferred with the Estates of Mark, Jülich and Berg on how best to respond to (and resist) the Elector’s demands.42 The Estates of Ducal Prussia, for their part, tended to see neighbouring Poland as the guarantor of their ancient privileges. As one senior Electoral official irritably remarked, the leaders of the Prussian Estates were ‘true neighbours of the Poles’ and ‘indifferent to the defence of [their own] country’.43

It was not long before the widening scope of the Elector’s ambitions put him on a collision course with the Estates. The introduction of foreigners, mostly of Calvinist confession, into the most powerful administrative offices of the territories was an affront to the largely Lutheran nobility. It contravened the cherished Indigenat, a longstanding constitutional tradition in all the provinces, according to which only ‘natives’ could serve in the administration. Another sensitive question was the standing army. The Estates objected to it not just because it was expensive, but also because it displaced the old system of provincial militias, which had been under Estates control. This was of particular importance in Ducal Prussia, where the militia system was a cherished symbol of the duchy’s ancient liberties. In 1655, when the Electoral administration put forward a proposal for the abolition of the militias and their replacement by a permanent force answering directly to Berlin, the Estates responded with bitter protests, declaring that if the traditional means did not suffice for an effective defence, the sovereign should order days of ‘general atonement and prayer’ and ‘seek refuge in God’.44 There are interesting parallels here with those outspoken ‘Country Whigs’ who opposed the expansion of the standing army in England, pleading for the retention of local militias under gentry control and arguing that a country’s foreign policy should be determined by its armed forces, not the other way around.45 In England, as in Ducal Prussia, the ‘country ideology’ of the rural elites encompassed a potent blend of provincial patriotism, the defence of ‘liberty’ and resistance to the expansion of state power.46 Many Prussian noblemen would have agreed enthusiastically with the view expressed in an English anti-army pamphlet of 1675 that ‘the power of Peerage and a Standing Army are like two Buckets, the proportion that one goes down, the other exactly goes up…’47

The most contentious issue of all was taxation. The Estates insisted that monetary and other levies could not legally be raised without prior agreement with their representatives. Yet the increasingly deep involvement of Brandenburg in regional power politics after 1643 meant that the administration’s financial needs could not be satisfied using the traditional fiscal mechanisms.48 During the years 1655–88 the Great Elector’s military expenditures totalled some 54 million thalers. Some of this was covered by foreign subsidies under a succession of alliance compacts. Some derived from the exploitation of the Elector’s own domains, or other sovereign revenues, such as the postal services, coinage and customs. But these sources together accounted for no more than 10 million thalers. The remainder had to be raised in the form of taxes from the population of the Elector’s territories.49

In Kleve, Ducal Prussia and even in Brandenburg, the heartland of the Hohenzollern patrimony, the Estates resisted the Elector’s efforts to secure new revenues for the army. In 1649, the Brandenburg Estates refused to approve funds for a campaign against the Swedes in Pomerania, despite the Elector’s earnest reminder that all his territories were now ‘limbs of one head’ (membra unius capitis) and that Pomerania ought thus to be supported as if it were ‘part of the Electorate’.50 In Kleve, where the wealthy urban patriciate still regarded the Elector as a foreign interloper, the Estates revived the traditional ‘alliance’ with Mark, Jülich and Berg; leading spokesmen even drew parallels with the contemporary upheavals in England and threatened to treat the Elector as the parliamentary party were treating King Charles. Frederick William’s threats to apply ‘military executive actions’ were largely futile, since the Estates were supported by the Dutch garrisons still occupying the duchy.51 In Ducal Prussia, too, the Elector encountered determined resistance. Here the Estates had traditionally ruled the roost, meeting regularly in full session and keeping a tight grip on central and local government, the militia and the territorial finances. The traditional Prussian right of appeal to the Polish Crown meant that they could not easily be bullied into cooperating.52

It was the outbreak of the Northern War of 1655–60 that brought the confrontation over revenues to a head. First, coercion and force were used to break resistance. Annual levies were raised unilaterally and extracted by military ‘executive action’ – especially in Kleve, where the annual contribution rose more sharply during the war years than anywhere else in the Elector’s lands. Leading Estates activists were intimidated or arrested.53 Protests were ignored. In the struggle over revenues, the Elector benefited from changes in the broader legal environment that helped to undermine the pretensions of the provincial elites. In 1654, under pressure from the German Electors, most of whom were locked in conflicts of one kind or another with their Estates, the Emperor decreed that the subjects of sovereigns within the Holy Roman Empire were ‘obliged obediently to give the necessary assistance to their Princes [… ] for the support and occupation of fortified places and garrisons’. While it is perhaps an exaggeration to describe this document as the ‘Magna Carta of absolutism’, the decree of 1654 was an important point of departure. It signalled the advent across the Holy Roman Empire of a political climate unfavourable to the assertion of corporate rights.54

Of all the conflicts over Estates’ rights, the one in Ducal Prussia was the most bitter. Here too, the outbreak of the Northern War was the catalyst for confrontation. The Elector summoned the Prussian Diet in April 1655 but even in August, when the threat posed by Sweden was evident, the Estates refused to promise more than 70,000 thalers – a small sum if one bears in mind that poorer and less populous Brandenburg was at this time providing an annual military contribution of 360,000 thalers.55 The situation changed dramatically in the winter of 1655 when Frederick William and his army arrived in Königsberg. Forced payments soon became the rule and the annual military contribution rose sharply to an average of 600,000 thalers over the years 1655–9. A string of administrative reforms was put in place that allowed the Elector to circumvent the Estates. The most important were the foundation of the War Commissariat, with extensive fiscal and confisca-tory powers, and the installation of an Electoral viceroy, Prince Boguslav Radziwill, whose task was to oversee the powerful and independent Supreme Councillors (Oberraäte), who had traditionally ruled Prussia on behalf of the Estates.

With the issue of his full sovereignty resolved by the Treaty of Wehlau (1657) and the Peace of Oliva (1660), the Elector was determined to achieve a lasting settlement with the Prussian Estates. But the Estates contested the validity of the treaties, arguing that changes to the constitutional machinery of the province could only be made on the basis of trilateral negotiations between the Elector, the Ducal Prussian Estates and the Polish Crown.56 During the year-long Great Diet convened in Königsberg in May 1661, the Estates unfolded a far-reaching programme of demands including a permanent right of appeal to the Polish Crown, the removal of all Electoral troops except for a few coastal garrisons, the exclusion of non-Prussians from official posts, regular diets, and automatic Polish mediation in all disputes between the Estates and the Elector. It proved extremely difficult to reach an agreement over these issues, the more so as the mood among the citizenry of Königsberg grew steadily more restless and intransigent. In order to insulate the negotiations from the turbulence in the ducal capital, the Elector’s minister, Otto von Schwerin, ordered that the diet be moved southwards to the more tranquil setting of Bartenstein in October 1661. Only after March 1662, when a mission to Warsaw failed to secure concrete assistance from Poland, did the corporate nobility begin to back down.


5. A view of the city of Königsberg (c. 1690)

In the meanwhile, the mood of the city had grown more radical, following a pattern that can also be observed in other parts of Europe. There were daily protest meetings. One of the foremost activists for urban corporate rights was Hieronymus Roth, a merchant and president of the court of aldermen of Kneiphof, one of the three ‘cities’ of old Königsberg. Hoping to persuade Roth to adopt a more moderate position, Otto von Schwerin invited him to a private meeting at the ducal castle in Königsberg on 26 May 1661. But the encounter went horribly wrong. According to a report by Schwerin, Roth adopted a seditious and confrontational tone, declaring among other things that ‘every prince, be he ever so pious, bears a tyrant in his breast’ – words that would later be cited in the alderman’s indictment. Roth for his part recalled that he had defended the ancient liberties of Königsberg in a polite and reasonable way – it was Schwerin who had flown into a rage and threatened him with raised arm.57

Despite a sustained campaign of harassment, Roth continued to agitate against the Electoral administration, protected by a city government that refused to arrest him or limit his activities. He travelled to Warsaw, where he met with the King of Poland, presumably in order to discuss the possibility of Polish support for the Estates. In the last week of October 1661, the Elector ran out of patience and entered Königsberg with 2,000 troops. Roth was arrested, tried, summarily convicted by an Electoral Commission and imprisoned in the fortress of Peitz, far away in Cottbus, a Hohenzollern enclave in Electoral Saxony. The prison regime was not particularly arduous in the early years – Roth was served six-course lunches, had comfortably appointed rooms and was allowed to take walks along the upper walls of the fortress.

New restrictions were imposed in 1668, however, when it was discovered that he had been carrying on a secret correspondence with his stepson in Königsberg, in which he railed against the ‘arrogant Calvinists’ who now governed his city on behalf of the Elector. The go-between who had conveyed his letters, a Königsberg-born soldier serving on the fortress garrison, was also punished. Frederick William had initially declared that he would release Roth if the latter would acknowledge his ‘guilt’, show true remorse and beg for mercy. But Roth stuck to his guns, objecting that he had acted not from any ill will but out of duty to his ‘Fatherland’. After the scandal of the intercepted letters, the Elector resolved that the turbulent alderman should never be released. Only some years later, at the age of seventy, did Roth write to Frederick William begging for his liberation and commending himself as the Elector’s ‘loyal and obedient subject’.58 But there was no pardon and the alderman died in his fortress in the summer of 1678, after seventeen years in confinement.

The imprisonment of Hieronymus Roth cleared the way for an interim settlement with the Prussian Estates. There were further clashes over taxation in the early 1670s, during which troops were called in to enforce payment. In January 1672 there was even a political execution in Ducal Prussia – the only one of the Elector’s reign.59 But the Prussians did eventually come to accept the Elector’s sovereignty and the fiscal regime that came with it. By the 1680s, the political rule of the Prussian Estates had come to an end, leaving nothing but nostalgic dreams of the ‘still unforgotten blissfulness, liberty and peaceful tranquillity’ they had enjoyed under the mild overlordship of the kings of Poland.60


The Electoral administration gradually extended its independence from the provincial elites. Since the Elector owned nearly one-third of Brandenburg and about half of Ducal Prussia, he could greatly expand his revenue base simply by improving the administration of the crown domains. During the Second Northern War, the management of these properties was streamlined under the oversight of the new Office for the Domains (Amtskammer). A further important step was the excise tax, an indirect duty on goods and services introduced piecemeal in the towns of Brandenburg during the late 1660s and later extended to Pomerania, Magdeburg, Halberstadt and Ducal Prussia. After local disputes over the mode of its collection, the excise was placed under the control of centrally directed tax commissioners (Steuerraäte), who soon began to accumulate other administrative functions. The excise was an important tactical asset because it divided the different corporate elements within the Estates against each other and thus weakened them vis-à-vis the central administration. Since the excise applied only to the towns, it placed rural enterprises at a competitive advantage over their urban rivals and enabled the Elector to milk the commercial wealth of the regions without alienating the powerful landed families.

Frederick William also reinforced his authority by appointing Calvinists to key administrative offices. This was not just a matter of religious preference – it was a policy consciously directed against the pretensions of the Lutheran Estates. Several of Frederick William’s most senior officials were foreign Calvinist princes. The long-serving viceroy of Kleve, John Moritz von Nassau-Siegen, fell into this category, as did Count (later Prince) George Frederick von Waldeck, the flamboyant ruler of a minor Westphalian principality who had served in the Dutch army and became the most influential minister of the first half of the reign. Another was John George II of Anhalt, commander of the 1672 campaign and sometime viceroy of Brandenburg. The Polish-Lithuanian Prince Boguslav Radziwill, appointed as viceroy in Ducal Prussia during the Second Northern War, was another imperial Calvinist grandee. The Brandenburg minister Otto von Schwerin, leading office-holder at the Berlin court after 1658, was a Pomeranian nobleman who had converted to Calvinism and whose activities on the Elector’s behalf included the buying up of noble estates and their incorporation into the crown domains. In all, some two-thirds of senior office-holders appointed during the Great Elector’s reign were of the Reformed faith.61

The use of foreign officials was another important development; in Brandenburg, scarcely any of the leading ministers appointed after 1660 was actually a native of the Electorate. The employment of gifted commoners (mainly lawyers) in the upper echelons of the civilian and military administrations widened the gap between government organs and the provincial elites. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Junker nobility of the Brandenburg hinterland had become a marginal presence within the nascent Hohenzollern bureaucracy, a trend accelerated by the deteriorating financial condition of an elite that was slow to recover from the disruptions of the Thirty Years War. Of all the appointments made to senior court, diplomatic and military posts between the accession of Elector Frederick William in 1640 and that of his grandson Frederick the Great one hundred years later, only 10 per cent went to members of the Brandenburg noble landowning class.62 What emerged as they retreated was a new office-holding type, less bound to the provincial nobilities than to the monarch and his administration.

This was not a struggle for the unconditional surrender of one party to the other. The central authority did not seek direct dominance over the provincial elites as such, but control over particular mechanisms within the traditional power-holding structures.63 The Elector never set out to abolish the Estates or to subject them entirely to his authority. The objectives of his administration were always limited and pragmatic. The most senior officials often urged the government to be flexible and indulgent in its dealings with the Estates.64 Prince Moritz von Nassau Siegen, viceroy in Kleve, was by temperament a conciliatory figure who spent much of his time in office mediating between the sovereign and the local elites.65 Frederick William’s chief agents in Ducal Prussia, Prince Radziwill and Otto von Schwerin, were both moderate figures with considerable sympathy for the Estates’ cause. A close examination of the protocols of the Privy Council reveals a veritable flood of individual complaints and requests from particular Estates, most of which were approved on the spot by the sovereign.66

The Estates, or at least the corporate nobilities, soon found ways of reconciling their interests with the Elector’s pretensions. They acted tactically, breaking with their corporate colleagues when it furthered their interests. Their opposition to the standing army was muted by the realization that military service in a command role offered an attractive and honourable road to status and a regular income.67 They did not contest in principle the Elector’s right to formulate foreign policy in consultation with his councillors. What they envisaged was a complementary relationship between the organs of central authority and the provincial grandees. As the Kleve Estates explained in a memorandum of 1684, the Elector could not be expected to know what was going on in all of his lands and was thus dependent upon his officials. But these, being human, were prey to the usual weaknesses and temptations. The role of the Estates was thus to provide a corrective and balance to the organs of provincial governance.68 Things had come a long way since the confrontational exchanges of the 1640s.

Force and coercion played a role in securing the acquiescence of local elites, but protracted negotiations, mediation and the convergence of interests, though less spectacular, were far more important.69 The Brandenburg administration pursued a flexible two-track approach, with the Elector pushing hard at intervals for key concessions and his officials working to restore consensus in between. Towns too, could benefit from this pragmatic approach. In return for rendering a formal declaration of fealty to the Elector in 1665, the little Westphalian city of Soest in the County of Mark was allowed to retain its ancient ‘constitution’, incorporating a unique system of self-government and municipal justice run by elected functionaries recruited from the corporate elites70

If we survey the situation at the end of the century from the vantage point of the rural localities, then it is clear that the nobility had conserved much of its jurisdictional autonomy and socio-economic power and remained the dominant force in the land. They retained the right to assemble at their own behest in order to deliberate on issues affecting the welfare of their regions. They controlled the collection and allocation of taxes in the countryside. More importantly, Estate bodies at district level (Kreisstaände) retained the right to elect the district governor (Landrat), ensuring that this crucial figure in the administration remained – into the late eighteenth century – an intermediary who answered not only to the sovereign, but also to local corporate interests.71

If, however, we focus instead on the political power structures of the Hohenzollern territories, it becomes plain that the relationship between the central administration and the provincial estates had been irreversibly transformed. Plenary assemblies of the corporate representatives of the provincial nobilities became increasingly rare – the last such meeting of the Altmark and Mittelmark nobilities took place in 1683. Thereafter the business of the Estates and their dealings with government were managed through small deputations of permanent delegates known as ‘lesser committees’ (engere Ausschüsse). The corporate nobility had retreated from the high ground of the state, focusing its collective attention on the locality and relinquishing its territorial political ambitions. Court and country had grown apart.


At the close of the seventeenth century, Brandenburg-Prussia was the largest German principality after Austria. Its long scatter of territories stretched like an uneven line of stepping-stones from the Rhineland to the eastern Baltic. Much of what had been promised in the marriage and inheritance contracts of the sixteenth century had now been made real. As the Elector told a tearful bedside gathering on 7 May two days before his death, his reign had been, by God’s grace, a long and happy one, though difficult and ‘full of war and trouble’. ‘Everyone knows the sad disorder the country was in when I began my reign; through God’s help I have improved it, am respected by my friends and feared by my enemies.’72 His celebrated great-grandson, Frederick the Great, would later declare that the history of Prussia’s ascent began with the reign of the Great Elector, for it was he who had established ‘the solid foundations’ of its later greatness. Echoes of this argument resound in the great nineteenth-century narratives of the Prussian school.

It is clear that the military and foreign-political exploits of this reign did define, in formal terms, a new point of departure for Brandenburg. From 1660, Frederick William was the sovereign ruler of Ducal Prussia, a territory outside the Holy Roman Empire. He had superseded his ancestral political condition. He was no longer merely an imperial potentate, but a European prince. It is a mark of his attachment to this new status that he sought from the court of Louis XIV the official denomination ‘Mon Frère’ traditionally accorded only to sovereign princes.73 During the reign of his successor Elector Frederick III, the Ducal Prussian sovereignty would be used to acquire the title of king for the House of Hohenzollern. In due course, even the ancient and venerable name of Brandenburg would be overshadowed by ‘Kingdom of Prussia’, the name increasingly used in the eighteenth century for the totality of the northern Hohenzollern lands.

The Elector himself was alert to the import of the changes that had been wrought during his reign. In 1667, he composed a ‘Fatherly Instruction’ for his heir. The document began, in the manner of the traditional princely testament, with exhortations to lead a pious and God-fearing life, but it soon broadened into a political tract of a type without precedent in the history of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Sharp contrasts were drawn between past and present: the Elector reminded his son of how the acquisition of sovereignty over Ducal Prussia had annulled the ‘intolerable condition’ of vassalage to the Crown of Poland that had oppressed his forebears. ‘All this cannot be described; the Archive and the accounts will bear witness to it.’74 The future Elector was also urged to develop an historical perspective on the problems that beset him in the present. Industrious consultation of the archive would reveal not only how important it was to maintain good relations with France, but also how these should be balanced with ‘the respect that You, as an Elector, must have for the Reich and Emperor’. There was also a strong sense of the new order established by the Peace of Westphalia and the importance of defending it if necessary against any power or powers that should set out to overturn it.75 In short, this was a document acutely sensitive to its own location in history and charged with an awareness of the tension between historical continuity and the forces of change.

Closely linked to the Elector’s alertness to historical contingency was an acute sensitivity to the vulnerability of his achievement: what had been made could always be unmade. The Swedes would always be waiting for the next chance ‘by cunning or by force’ to wrest control of the Baltic coast from Brandenburg. The Poles, together with the Prussians themselves, would take the first opportunity to return Ducal Prussia to its ‘prior condition’.76 It followed that the task of his successors would not be to extend further the territories of the House of Brandenburg, but to safeguard what was already rightfully theirs:

Be sure at all times that you live as far as possible in mutual trust, friendship and correspondence with all the Electors, princes and Estates of the Empire, and that you give them no cause for ill-will, and keep the good peace. And because God had blessed our House with many lands, you should look only to their conservation, and be sure that you do not awaken great envy and enmity through the quest for further lands or jeopardize thereby what you already possess.77

It is worth emphasizing this note of edginess. It articulates one of the abiding themes of Brandenburg-Prussian foreign policy. Underlying Berlin’s view of the world there was always a sharp undertone of vulnerability. The restless activism that would become a hallmark of Prussian foreign policy began with the remembered trauma of the Thirty Years War. We hear it resounding in the doleful phrases of the ‘Fatherly Instruction’: ‘For one thing is quite certain, if You simply sit still, in the belief that the fire is still far from Your borders: then Your lands will become the theatre on which the tragedy is played out.’78 We hear it again in Frederick William’s words of 1671 to the chief minister Otto von Schwerin: ‘I have experienced neutrality before; even under the most favourable conditions, you are treated badly. I have vowed never to be neutral again until I die.’79 It is one of the central problems of Brandenburg-Prussian history that this sense of vulnerability proved so inescapable.

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