Prussia: Supremacy of Prussia

Supremacy of Prussia

In 1861, William I (regent since 1858) became king, and in 1862 he appointed as premier Otto von Bismarck, who directed the destiny of Prussia and (after 1871) of Germany until 1890. Bismarck effected the elimination of Austria from German affairs and the union of Germany under Prussian hegemony by means of three deliberately planned wars. The first war (1864) was fought in alliance with Austria against Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein. Its settlement furnished a pretext for the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, in which Prussia quickly and thoroughly defeated Austria and its allies and gained additional territory by the annexation of Hanover, Electoral Hesse, Nassau, Schleswig-Holstein, and the free city of Frankfurt am Main. The German Confederation was dissolved, and the Prussian-led North German Confederation took its place. Finally, in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), the North German Confederation overwhelmed France, and in 1871 William I of Prussia was proclaimed emperor of Germany.

In its main features the subsequent history of Prussia was that of Germany. However, Bismarck's Kulturkampf against the Roman Catholic Church was largely confined to the kingdom of Prussia, which, like the other German states, continued as an individual member of the empire.

The Prussian constitution adopted in 1850 and amended in the following years was far less liberal than the federal constitution of the empire. The government was not responsible to the Prussian Landtag (lower chamber), whose powers were small and whose members were elected by a suffrage system based on tax-paying ability. The house of lords was largely controlled by the conservative Junkers, who held immense tracts of generally poor land E of the Elbe (particularly in East Prussia). Endowed with little money and much pride, they had continued to form the officer corps of the army. The rising industrialists, notably the great Rhenish and Westphalian mine owners and steel magnates, although their interests were often opposed to those of the Junkers, exerted an equally reactionary influence on politics. The Prussian constitution was liberalized after Prussia became a republic in 1918, and the Junkers lost many of their estates through the cession of Prussian territory to Poland. However, both the Junkers and the Rhenish industrialists continued to exert much power behind the scenes, and when Franz von Papen became (1932) German chancellor and commissioner for Prussia, they came into their own. In July, 1932, Papen suspended the Prussian parliament and ousted the Social Democrat Otto Braun, who had been premier of Prussia (with brief interruptions) from 1920.

Early in 1933, Adolf Hitler seized power and made Hermann Goering premier of Prussia; Hitler's rise had been aided by the Rhenish industrialists. By a decree of Hitler issued in Jan., 1934, the German states ceased to exist as political units, and it was no longer possible to differentiate clearly between Prussia and the rest of Germany. After World War II, in 1947, Prussia was officially dissolved by the Allied Control Council, which characterized the state as “a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany.” The former state was divided among the former West and East Germanies, Poland, and the USSR's Russian Republic (now Russia).

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