Prussia: Rise of the Prussian State

Rise of the Prussian State

The electorate with its dependencies had become a major German state by the end of the 17th cent., a position that it owed largely to the secularization of church lands during the Reformation (the major part of its new acquisitions had been ecclesiastic territory) and to its successful diplomacy at the Peace of Westphalia (1648). In 1701, Elector Frederick III had himself crowned “king in Prussia” at Königsberg (Kaliningrad) and styled himself King Frederick I. He remained a prince of the Holy Roman Empire by virtue of his rank as margrave and elector of Brandenburg and his holdings within the empire, but not as king of Prussia, which lay outside the imperial boundaries. This technicality gave the kings of Prussia a measure of independence from the emperor not possessed by the other princes of the empire.

As a result of the Northern War, Prussia gained (1720) the eastern part of Swedish Pomerania (including Stettin). In the following 20 years, however, King Frederick William I, the true creator of the Prussian state, avoided military ventures and used diplomacy in order to create a unified state. He fully developed the features that had distinguished Prussia since the time of the Great Elector. The army, necessary to defend Prussia's scattered lands, was also the chief force in unifying and shaping the state. In order to build a strong army in their relatively poor country, Prussia's rulers developed a government-controlled economy and an obedient central bureaucracy (the Generaldirektorium). The landed aristocrats, the Junkers, were brought into military and state service and in turn were left free to enserf their peasants.

Frederick William's successor, Frederick II, or Frederick the Great (reigned 1740–86), used the efficient military instrument bequeathed him by his father to enter upon a period of conquest. On a slim pretext (see Silesia) and without a declaration of war, he invaded (1740) Austrian territory, thus gaining the initiative in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48). Acting with utter disregard for its allies, Prussia got out of the war in 1742 by the Treaty of Berlin, reentered it in 1744, and quit again in 1745 at the Treaty of Dresden. In both treaties Maria Theresa of Austria was forced to cede nearly all of Silesia to Prussia. Although it gained no additional territory in the Seven Years War (1756–63), Prussia emerged from the war as the chief military power of the Continent. By the partition of Poland of 1772 (see Poland, partitions of) Prussia gained Pomerelia (except Danzig) and Ermeland. Pomerelia was organized into the province of West Prussia, and the original Prussia became known as East Prussia.

Frederick was succeeded (1786) by Frederick William II, who further added to Prussia by the partitions of Poland of 1793 and 1795. However, under his rule and that of his successor, Frederick William III (1797–1840), Prussia underwent a period of eclipse as a result of the French Revolutionary Wars and the wars of Napoleon I. Defeated by the French, Prussia withdrew from the antirevolutionary coalition in the Treaty of Basel (1795) and remained neutral until 1806. Its armies were crushed by Napoleon in the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt, and in 1807 Prussia had to accept the harsh Treaty of Tilsit, by which it lost all lands W of the Elbe and most of its share of Poland and became a virtual dependency of France.

Prussia was fortunate to possess, at this low ebb in its history, such able and energetic reformers as Karl vom und zum Stein, Karl August von Hardenberg, and Wilhelm von Humboldt. These men helped transform Prussia into a progressive state by abolishing serfdom and nobiliary privileges, introducing agrarian and other social and economic reforms, and laying the groundwork for an exemplary system of universal education. Gerhard von Scharnhorst and August, Graf von Gneisenau at the same time put the Prussian army on a modern basis.

Prussia was forced to send auxiliary troops for Napoleon's 1812 campaign in Russia, but late in the year Yorck von Wartenburg concluded a separate truce with Russia, and in 1813 Prussia joined the coalition against France. Field Marshal Blücher played a major role in defeating Napoleon at Leipzig (1813) and at Waterloo (1815). At the Congress of Vienna, Prussia gained, in addition to its recovered territories, the entire Rhine prov. and Westphalia, the northern half of Saxony, the remainder of Swedish Pomerania, and a large part of W Poland, including Danzig (Gdańsk), Poznań, and Gniezno. However, Prussia disappointed the hopes of German liberals by following the lead of the Austrian chancellor, Metternich, in the Holy Alliance.

A constitution promised in 1811 failed to materialize under the increasingly reactionary government of Frederick William III, and the half-hearted constitutional schemes of Frederick William IV were impracticable. By 1834 Prussia had, however, taken the lead in the economic unification of Germany (see Zollverein), which was a prerequisite to political union. The March Revolution of 1848 was put down by force, and in 1849 Frederick William IV refused the imperial crown of Germany offered by the Frankfurt Parliament. His scheme for a German Union under Prussian leadership and excluding Austria was punctured in the Convention of Olomouc (1850), and Prussia returned to the restored German Confederation.

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