Throughout the years who was Prussian, as well as what that meant culturally and historically would undergo several changes. Beginning as a mysterious distant group of barbarian tribes, up to a force that would be demonized for the perceived threat it posed to the world. Prussian history highlights that how we define something or someone depends on the lens in which we view it. Trying to understand the extended timeline, taking into consideration the factors that forged a certain situation, can give us a new perspective. It shows us just how versatile culture can be. That a culture is not a static thing, that in fact it really is quite tangible.
The history of Prussia extends back to the very beginning of human settlement into Europe. It follows a path that becomes convoluted due to the waves of people that would follow them into the European Continent. Wave after wave of conquest and infighting, led to a string of tribal and later nation states that would be in constant flux for century after century.
It’s isn’t surprising that in discussion there can be some confusion as to what exactly is ‘Prussian’. The term itself can take on several different meanings, referring to a changing sect of people, an ever-morphing region, and even lending its name to a militant or authoritarian society. While Germans aren’t necessarily Prussian, some Prussians are German.The two nations distinct for most of history would eventually become conjoined under the banner of the German Nation, and the event would be facilitated by perhaps the most famous Prussian, Otto van Bismark. The evolution of Prussia demonstrates the true complexity of our world. The way a locale reacts to the passage of time as forces from around the world wash over it. Reacting and changing as each asserts its influence over the people and culture.
The First Prussians
The people who would later become known as Prussians, were among the earliest people to venture into the European Continent. Making their way out of Western Asia they settled along the South-Eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, in what now are the countries of Lithuania and Latvia. Several distinct tribes inhabited this area up to 5000 years ago, collectively they are the ancestors of many modern Slav peoples. Sandwiched between the sea and a marshy forest to the East, the early Prussians had a fairly defensive location. They would not live an isolated existence though, they fought in conflicts with neighboring Slavic Tribes, Slavs that lived further South. They also faced off against their Turkish neighbors, their access to the sea being a sought after position to inhabit. However there would be downsides to being a coastal people. Much later in their history as Nordic sailors began to explore the waters of the Baltic, they would raid the Prussian settlements for anything of value.
The first mention of them in recorded history is by the Romans. Refereed to as ‘Prescun’ in the history ‘Germania,’ they were noted as being a peaceful people, who would rescue sailors who washed ashore after their boats were destroyed in the North Sea. The thing that brought these people to the attention of the Romans was their abundance of amber. Amber was highly prized by the Romans who traded extensively for it with the Prussians. The Romans would never conquer the people of Prussia, as Roman power faded, Germanic raiders from the East would invade and conquer the lands where these early Prussians lived.
During the period of the Crusades a band of Knights known as the Teutonic Order would enter the area. The Teutonic Knights was their short name, abbreviated from The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary, originally sought their fortunes in the Holy Land. After successes there, and with the amount of bounty in Jerusalem running thin, they turned their attention to the Baltic region. They conquered the people who were living there, and were giving the rights to local property. Additional Germanic settlers came to the region, and the remaining original people were converted to Christianity.
The Knights reign of power lasted for several centuries. It was brought to an end by an uprising of Prussians aided by the Polish people which managed to overthrow the Knights. In their wake two Prussian states controlled by Poland emerged, Royal and Ducal Prussia. Royal Prussia became a part of Poland while Ducal was given to the last Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights. Poland eventually became involved in a war with Sweden, that resulted in becoming invaded. Overwhelmed by the war effort, Poland would relinquish sovereignty of the split Prussian states and the Kingdom of Prussia was born.
After hundreds of years and life under several foreign rulers, the Prussian people had regained a level of independence that those alive had personally never known. Finally acknowledged formally as a unified Prussia, they were not entirely on their own. The country remained under the influence of the German King. For the time being though, they held some autonomy. That time would be short lived, as the saga of Prussia would continue. In a few years they would return to the tumultuous path of development. Their kingdom would become divided again, as the German states entered a period of infighting among various families all vying for some level of control.