The Prussian story is a great example of the way the borders of our world melt into one another. Their history is that of one conquest or rise to power after another. In its last three hundred years, Prussia will move slowly toward a larger unified territory. The one that is probably most recognizable from a modern viewpoint. As the tide of the world sweeps around them, they will find themselves at mercy of the collection of these influences.
The Birth of the Prussia as a Nation
Prussia ends the 17th century gaining a bit more autonomy. The various states in Europe are primarily governed by different families, ruling under the allowance of the Roman Catholic Church. Poland holds sway over all of Prussia. Prussia itself is divided at this point into two distinct states, that of Royal Prussia, which is under direct Polish control and the province of Ducal Prussia which is ruled through extension by a separate family. As the century turns over, the rule of the Ducal state passes into the hands of the Brandenburg family, more German in lineage, and already controlling several of German States to the West of Prussia. The Ducal state is completely cutoff from the other lands that the Brandenburgs control. Which is not that uncommon at this point in history. A time that is dominated by feudal lords, who are awarded lands at different times often in a disjointed arrangement. This is however a period that is coming to a close. The push for more centralized power is growing and the desire for nation-states is beginning to gain popularity
Emerging into the 18th century Prussia begins to assert its influence in continental affairs. The head of the Brandenburgs at this point is Frederick the First. He is awarded the title of King in Prussia for aiding the Austrian Empire in their war against Spain. Austria will retain some control until Frederick is succeeded by his son who will be dubbed King of Prussia. Frederick the First continues to further his influence. At the time there are three primary forces that govern local affairs. There’s the clergy, the nobility and the local land owners. These land owners who held control of the local boroughs are known in french as bourgeois, a term that will eventually serve as the division between the working class and the ruling elite. The Prussian king begins to implement vast tax reform that directly affects these land owners by siphoning the taxes that they were receiving, and redirecting them into the national coffers. He in turn uses these monies to finance the growth and training of a large army. This move of increasing the level of autocracy and building up military forces will become the combination of traits that the Prussian people will be most remembered for.
The army is built up in such a way that allows the Prussian economy to thrive as well. All peasants are drafted into a service period lasting ten month when they reach adulthood, they return to their homes to provide the infrastructure the country needs to grow economically. Nobility also have a requirement of service, while the merchants are left exempt. Relying heavily on foreign born mercenaries who comprise half of the Prussian army, the Prussians are able to balance the steady growth of their nation both monetarily and defensively. When the time comes for Frederick the First’s son to take over, he will inherit a very stable country, one that has a solid economy with a cash surplus, and the most well trained army in Europe.
Frederick the Second
Before inheriting all these, Frederick the Second lives a very privileged life. He is brought up in a highly cultured environment, one that will shape his approach to governing. He is a gifted musician who performs concerts on his flute. He maintains an ongoing correspondence with the philosopher Voltaire. He also puts forth political essays, the most note worthy proposes a counter argument to the Machiavellian view of how a leader should rule his people. In it he makes the case for ruling through enlightened principles. When he becomes ruler he will act on this belief. It will be a departure from the well rooted tradition of ruling through power and fear.
Before any of this occurs, and while he is still a boy, his father becomes concerned his artistic leanings will not be enough to prepare him for leadership. He pushes his heir to learn the militaristic discipline. At one point Frederick the Second attempts to sneak out of the country with a friend of his, to take a trip to England. The two are caught and both thrown into prison. To show his son how serious he is about the path he wishes his son to take, the older Frederick forces his son to watch the execution of his would be traveling partner. Accepting military training, Frederick the Second doesn’t turn his back completely on the arts, though for the remainder of his father’s life, he probably remains less enthusiastic about them. When he finally does come to power, he builds an opera house and creates a court orchestra. One that includes the son of Johann Sebastian Bach playing the harpsichord.
The military training wouldn’t go to waste however. In the first year of his reign, the King of Austria would die, and Frederick the Second would take advantage of the change in leadership to invade part of Austria. Leading one of the strongest armies in Europe at the time, he is immediately successful in taking control of the area he invades. France as well as Bavaria ally themselves with the Prussians. England has an alliance with Austria and is roped into the conflict. As the war drags on, England begins to look for Austria to come to their aid, convinces them to make peace and succeed the lost territory to Prussia.
Austria doesn’t forget about this stretch of land however. After a few years, they are making plans to retake it. Prussia catches them unprepared and again invades a different region of Austria. Alliances are called upon, and pretty soon the conflict spreads across the continent, and meets up with a conflict that had broken out at roughly the same time across the Atlantic Ocean. A war that was being fought between the British and French over land disputes in the ‘New World.’ The conflict in its entirety will become known by two names, depending on what lens you’re are looking at it through. For Europeans it is know as the Seven Year War, while for those in the Americas it is remembered as the French-Indian War.
This time the British are on the side of the Prussians, and France has joined up with Austria as well as Russia. Russia has a massive army and pose a severe threat to the Prussians. The saving grace for Prussia though is that the Russian Queen at the time, who hates Prussia is in ill health. Her generals are wary of attacking Prussia because her successor is an admire or Frederick the Second. England wins the war being fought in North America, they begin to withdraw from the war. The Russian Queen has held onto life for several years and the loss of England as an ally will spell disaster for Prussia. In the final days before a Prussian defeat, the Queen dies, and Russia and Prussia make peace. The Austrians who have no hope to win without Russian aid give up, as does France. The map of Europe departs this war in much the same way it entered it. The most notable exception is that Poland finds itself surrounded by powers that are allied together.
19th Century & Napoleon
As the 18th century comes to a close the perilous position that Poland found itself in at the end of the Seven Year War proves fatal. Russia descends on the country and splits up its lands with Austria and Prussia. The power that these countries would exert would be short lived however. To the west in France a revolution is brewing. One that will see these newly overtaken lands overtaken again. Napoleon comes to power and sets out to conquer Europe. Prussia attempts to remain neutral for as long as possible. Ultimately they are pulled into the conflict and defeated. They lost all territory west of Berlin, in addition to the Polish lands they had just acquired. Forced to pay tribute to Napoleon they also endured occupation by French troops. The nation of Prussia at this point encompasses essentially the same area that it had at the very beginning of Prussian history, primarily the south-eastern coastal lands of the Baltic Sea.
Ironically the idea of liberty that had been birthed in France, had spread as the French made their way across Europe. Reforms began that liberated the serfs and gave more power to local governments, leading to a rise in nationalism. France’s invasion into Russia would not be successful. As the French were chased out of the countries they had conquered, the native people of those countries rose up and joined with the Russian army to push Napoleon back into France. After the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, Prussia regained the German portions of their kingdom, though without some of the parts of Poland they had acquired at the end of the 18th century.
The period after the Napoleonic Wars saw prosperity for Prussia and the German States. The nationalist sentiment that had been born during the occupation continued to grow. Eventually the man appeared,who would make this feeling a reality, the architect of the modern German state, Otto van Bismark. He would manipulate the national budget to flow a large amount of funds into the military. Building it back into a continental threat. With the steady funding this army would fight three successive wars, first with Denmark, then Austria and finally France. With each war Prussia was adding more and more smaller states to its holdings. After the third war, the Prussian state and German state effective merged and the King of Prussia William I became the emperor of Germany.
Prussia would remain united with Germany until the end of WWI. At that point it was broken down into smaller states by the Treaty of Versailles. When Hitler came to power and had built up the German war machine again, he began to re amass all of these smaller states under the umbrella of the German nation. Once again propelling the Prussian state into a worldwide conflict. After WWII when allies took control of Germany, Soviet Russia would take much of NE Prussia. Poland would be allotted the SE portion, with the remaining land split between Soviet British and French zones of occupation. Collectively these nations would formally abolish the Prussian sate on Mach 1st 1947.
When we think of the past, certain civilizations stand out as predominant examples. Societies that endured longer than others. Or paved the way into the future by being a turning point in history. Some of those might be the Greeks, Persians, or even the British. We often study nation-states like these separately and view history according to what transpired while they were influential A typical course of study looks at the rise, the achievements and the fall of what we consider the ‘Great Civilizations.’ It would be wise to remember that none of these people lived in isolation from the rest of the world. That in fact, the currents that happened beyond their borders intermingle with their stories.