Germany: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

Rise of Prussia

While the Thirty Years' War was still raging, a German prince came to the throne of a state which was in time to stand at the head of the modern German Empire. This prince was Frederick William, head of the Hohenzollern family, and Elector of Brandenburg and Prussia. He began to rule in 1640, and made his power so felt in German affairs that he won the name of the Great Elector.

In his day the power of the Emperor was fast falling to nothing. The Imperial crown served as a name under which the many states of Germany were gathered, and the Emperor himself held authority in his own kingdom of Austria. But the kings and princes of German principalities paid no obedience the the Imperial will, and each ruled for himself.

In these smaller German courts the influence of France became very great. It was the time of Louis XIV, Louis the Great, and the French Court was a scene of brilliant splendour, and the home of wasteful and senseless extravagance. Young German princes went thither to complete their education, and returned home to imitate as far as they could the luxury of Versailles.

At these courts Louis maintained a host of spies, for he wished to despoil Germany of her lands on the west bank of the Rhine. He had already seized part of the province of Alsace, he was now eager to set foot in Lorraine, so that the left bank of the Rhine from the Swiss frontier to the Netherlands would belong to France. Louis was a most powerful enemy, for he was undisputed master of the great realm of France, while Germany was so divided into petty kingdoms that her national power as an empire could scarcely be said to exist. But there was one German prince who clearly saw the designs of Louis and meant to defeat them if possible: this was the Great Elector.

Frederick William had spent the early years of his reign in strengthening his position. He found that his territories were loose and straggling, and mingled with them were provinces belonging to Poland. He was a vassal of the latter kingdom, holding his Duchy of Prussia from the King of Poland. This vassalage he threw off with the help of Sweden, and in the course of time he gathered into his hands the provinces which form the modern kingdom of Prussia.

When the Great Elector saw in 1672 that the French king was threatening the German provinces along the Rhine, he marched to oppose the French advance. But he could gain no aid from the Emperor, and was compelled to withdraw. The Emperor was Leopold I (1658-1705), a dull, weak man of the House of Hapsburg, who had succeeded his brother, Ferdinand III. The Elector was not easily to be driven from the Rhine, and Louis, in order to draw him away, prompted the Swedes to invade Brandenburg. They did so, and Frederick William was forced to go home to defend his own territories. He beat the Swedes and drove them into Pomerania. He followed and made himself master of the latter province in 1678, but, under pressure from France, he had to give it up the next year. The French king next laid claim to some six hundred German towns and villages. He said they had once belonged to France and he was resolved to take them again. Then he seized the great German city of Strasburg, and added it to France.

All these doings aroused great anger in Germany, but no state was strong enough to stand alone against Louis, and the German princes were disunited. The Great Elector died while Louis was at the height of his power, in 1688, and was followed by his son, Frederick I (1688-1713). Frederick William had reigned over Brandenburg for forty-eight years and had done much for his state. He raised a standing army to defend it, and he carefully fostered arts and commerce. When the Huguenots, the Protestants of France, fled from the persecution of Louis, he allowed numbers of them to settle at his capital of Berlin. The Huguenots were clever craftsmen and made excellent citizens, doing much good to the trade of their adopted country.

At the time of Frederick William's death an alliance had been formed by William, Prince of Orange, to withstand Louis, who was a bitter foe to William's people, the Dutch. In 1688 William of Orange became William III of England, and now England, Holland, Sweden, Spain, Brandenburg, the Emperor, and a number of German princes combined to check Louis, who aimed at becoming the master of Europe. In order to keep the war out of France Louis attacked the Palatinate, thus forcing the allies to stand on the defensive. The French king ordered his troops "to burn the Palatinate," and this cruel order was carried out. The beautiful Rhine province was devastated, many hundreds of thriving villages and busy towns being burned and sacked. In 1699 the Peace of Ryswick was made, and Alsace and Strasburg were left in the hands of Louis.

The next quarrel broke out over Spain. The King of Spain died, and Louis wished to secure the crown for his grandson; on the other hand, the Emperor of Germany wished to obtain it for his second son, the Archduke Charles of Austria. The Emperor was supported by England, Holland, and the German princes, with Brandenburg at their head. In this war, which lasted from 1701 to 1714, Prince Eugene, a famous German commander, and the Duke of Marlborough, a great English general, won many victories for the allies, and the power of Louis was dashed to pieces. The war was closed by the Peace of Utrecht, which divided the Spanish dominions among several claimants, and one clause acknowledged that Prussia had become a kingdom.

During the war Brandenburg and Prussia had been ruled by the son of the Great Elector, Frederick III, who had fought steadily against Louis. In 1700 the Electorate was raised to a kingdom, and in 1701 Frederick became Frederick I, the first King of Prussia. He died in 1713, and was followed by his son, Frederick William I (1713-1740).

Frederick William was very simple in his tastes, and very careful of money. His father had spent great sums in court display: Frederick William at once cut down all the expenses of pomp and show and employed the money to build schools and make useful improvements. He would tolerate no idlers in his kingdom, and walked about the streets of his capital clothed in a very plain dress, and with a heavy cane in his hand. If he came across a man who seemed to be an idle fop or a lazy workman he would lay the cane across the culprit's shoulders till he howled for mercy.

There was only one thing for which Frederick would spend money freely and that was his army. It was his great ambition to make Prussia so strong that she need fear no enemy, and could take a leading place among the states of the German Empire. In the army he had one pet regiment: his famous giant guard, to fill the ranks of which he sought for the tallest men of the day. Not only did he scour Germany for big men, but he had agents who searched for him in every country of Europe. He would pay vast sums for recruits, and when money would not tempt them, huge fellows were often kidnapped and dragged into Prussia by force to serve him. On one occasion a big man was seized by his agents, packed in a great box, and carried over the frontier. When the box was opened the unfortunate giant was dead: he had been suffocated because the air-holes bored for breathing were not large enough.

Frederick William died in 1740, and was followed by his son, Frederick II (1740-1788), who was to become known as Frederick the Great.