A Brief History of Prussia until 1740

Map of the Holy Roman Empire circa 1740
The Holy Roman Empire circa 1740

Prussia was not a really much of a power until, or really much of a state until mid-1700’s. The original territory was Brandenburg (see the map), which was ruled by the Hohenzollern family. Brandenburg was simply another small protestant princedom in the un-gangly mass that was the Holy Roman Empire.

By the mid-1700’s the Holy Roman Empire was in decline. The Empire had been formed in the 10th century out of what was left of Charlemagne’s empire. The Empire was a hodgepodge of small states, both Protestant and Catholic, loosely controlled by its emperor. The states, while supposedly looking toward the Emperor for leadership, had the right to seek outside alliances with foreign powers and the right to determine their own religion. The ruling family was the Hapsburgs of Austria, the largest state in the Empire (which also happened to be Catholic).

Over time, the size and power of Brandenburg increased. The Hohenzollerns were accorded the hereditary electorship in 1415, giving Brandenburg a say in who became the next Emperor, and generally increasing its status in the Empire. In 1618 (the year the devastating 30 Years War began), the Hohenzollerns acquired East Prussia, and they then acquired Cleves, Mark, and Ravensburg in 1666, all through peaceful means (read marriage alliances and back-room political deals).

It wasn’t until after the 30 Years War that Prussia began to show ascendance as a military power. Due to the unadvantageous layout of their territory (East Prussia was completely surrounded by Poland and Brandenburg itself was in the middle of the Baltic coast states), a complete lack of natural defenses, and, really, a rather ineffective ruler, Elector George William (1597-1640), Prussia found itself in an untenable position.

The brutality of the 30 Years War was unmatched (except for perhaps during WWII). What had started as a religious war (Protestants vs. Catholics, which was bad enough), had descended into chaos. Mercenary armies rampaged unchecked and entire towns were wiped out (the men either killed or forcibly impressed into service, the children generally killed, the women raped and forced to become camp prostitutes, and finally, the town burned down after everything of value had been stolen). Entire areas were depopulated, and had not recovered by the time of Frederick the Great, roughly 100 years later.

Left with little choice, Elector George William made peace with the protestant Swedes, after the death of the King of Sweden in 1632, and perhaps one of histories greatest military commanders, Gustavus Adolphus. Without King Adolphus, the war dragged on for 16 more years. At the conclusion of the war (which had pretty much lost its religious significance as the more powerful Kingdoms and States switched sides to increase their perceived advantage), Brandenburg and its territories were left occupied by Swedish troops. Not only that, Brandenburg had to pay for it as well (both in money and supplies). However, this was about to change.

Frederick William the Great Elector with his wife and children
Frederick William the Great Elector with family
The Battle of Fehrbellin (1675)
The Battle of Fehrbellin (1675)

When his father died in 1640, Frederick William ascended to the control of Brandenburg. He realized that the only for Brandenburg to survive conflicts, with her indefensible borders, was to become a leading military power. After paying an indemnity to the Swedes to get them to remove their troops, Frederick William set about re-organizing Brandenburg’s military. Also, possibly more importantly, he set about breaking the power of Brandenburg’s aristocracy, the Junkers. By Frederick the Great’s time, the Junkers had become, in effect a class of bureaucrats and military officers, rather than a group of rebellious, fractious noblemen. Under the direction of Frederick William, Brandenburg’s small, but professional (a relatively new innovation in warfare, since most of the armies in the 30 Years War were made up of mercenaries) army defeated their former allies/occupiers, the Swedes, in 1675 at Fehrbellin. This established Brandenburg as a military power and ensured that its ruler would be remembered as Frederick William the Great Elector.

King Frederick I
King Frederick I

Upon his death in 1688, Frederick William was succeeded by his son, Frederick III. Frederick III, while having a taste for opulence and luxury that left the family in debt on his death, further increase the prowess of Brandenburg’s military (though not personally, much of the reorganization was accomplished by his head general, Prince Leopold I of Ahhalt-Dessau). Frederick III sent his army into battle many times, always in support of a soon to be grateful (usually monetarily) ally. This gave Brandenburg’s army much needed experience. Also, thanks to the support that Brandenburg gave to the Holy Roman Emperor against France, Frederick III was given kingship of his territories. He was named Frederick I, and Brandenburg was renamed Prussia for its eastern-most territory. Frederick I died in 1713, leaving his new kingdom to his son, Frederick William I (try not to be confused by all of the Fredericks and Frederick Williams, both were extremely common names among the rulers of Prussia, for obvious reasons).

After ascending the throne, Frederick William I quickly set about transforming his court. He got rid of all of the unnecessary officials and formed a frugal, but efficient administration. In fact, he did away with virtually all the excess luxury that his father had loved. Instead of wearing royal regalia, Frederick William I was more comfortable in a military uniform. By the end of his reign, barely 5% of the kingdoms revenue was dedicated to upkeep of the royal family and state functions, compared with, say France, where the royal family spent up to 50% of the country’s revenue on their upkeep (one of the causes of the French Revolution, I might add). Frederick William was a severe man whose only real pleasure came from the military. In fact, Frederick William had created a guard regiment of grenadiers called Longshanks (extremely tall men, the shortest being 6 feet, the tallest nearer to eight feet. None of which were very common in mid-1700’s Germany, or Europe for that matter), that he dressed in overly fancy uniforms, and spent hours drilling them in various parade formations. He also established a native arms industry (which would become very important later), maintained a highly effective officer corps for his forces, and created the first effective light cavalry. Despite all of this, due to his effective administration, his father’s debts were soon paid off, and he left his successor, Frederick II with a full treasury. He also managed to acquire Pomerania from Sweden. During his reign, Frederick William kept his loyalty to the Empire and its emperor, Charles VI. He supported the Hapsburgs against France in the War of Polish Succession. He also supported the Pragmatic Sanction.

King Frederick William I
King Frederick William I
Maria Theresia by Martin Van Meytens (1695-1770)
Maria Theresa

The Pragmatic Sanction was an agreement that all of the Electors in the Empire would support the succession of Charles VI daughter, Maria Theresa, to the throne of Austria, should he have no male heir (which he didn’t). In exchange for his support, Frederick William’s, Frederick II, was supposed to marry a close relative of Charles VI (though, not one of his daughters). This was a fairly common practice, using marriage alliances as payment for political favors. However, Charles VI reneged on the deal, marrying the girl off to a relative of the English monarchy in exchange for their support. This greatly angered Frederick William. This along with a new growing friendship between Catholic France and Catholic Austria (this is after the War of Polish Succession of course) cause a rift to form between Prussia and Austria, unquestionably the two most powerful states in the Holy Roman Empire.

Frederick William I died in 1740, leaving his son, Frederick (whom he never liked), King of Prussia. The same year, however, Charles VI, King of Austria, and Holy Roman Emperor died. Despite the Pragmatic sanction, Elector Charles Albert of Bavaria, King Philip V of Spain, and Augustus III of Saxony all contested Maria Theresa’s succession. Frederick II (soon to be known as The Great) offered to adhere to the Pragmatic Sanction and support Maria Theresa. In return, Prussia would occupy Silesia (another state that bordered southern Brandenburg, which Prussia claimed belonged to it). Maria Theresa refused. So, taking advantage of the turmoil caused by the disputed succession, in December of 1740, Frederick the Great ordered his army to invade Silesia.