Brandenburg-Prussia & the Roots of Modern Germany (1640-88)

September 24, 2012 12:30 pm

As badly as the Thirty Years War had treated Hapsburg Austria, it was much worse for the German states comprising the Holy Roman Empire.  Some estimates of population loss in the war go as high as 35-40%, with material damage at an equally frightening level.  However, human beings are a resilient species in the face of such adversity, and recovery was soon underway.  Travelers in Germany a few years after the war noted a marked absence of men of military age, but an unusually high number of children.  By l700, Germany’s population was back to its pre-war level of 20,000,000.  Similar resilience was shown by the tiny state of Brandenburg-Prussia in northern Germany.  In l648, no one looking at this poor little state devastated by war would have believed it was destined one day to unite all of Germany and become a major world power. 

Brandenburg had lived under the rule of the Hohenzollern dynasty since l4ll when Frederick of Hohenzollern had purchased the territory and one of the seven electoral votes of the empire along with it.  In l6l8, the elector, as the ruler of Brandenburg was known, also got control of Prussia some l00 miles to the east, holding it as a vassal of the king of Poland.  Brandenburg especially suffered during the Thirty Years War, since it was caught between the Catholic imperialists to the south and Swedes to the north, not to mention its own rapacious mercenaries.  This was the situation when Frederick William, known as the Great Elector, took power in 1640.   

Frederick William found an imposing array of problems that fell into three basic categories: geographic, military/diplomatic, and economic.  Frederick William’s main geographic problem was that the territories of Brandenburg and Prussia were separated by l00 miles of Polish territory, making it very difficult to control and administer.  Economically, Brandenburg was a poor country with few resources and a sandy soil that earned it the nickname “the sandbox of Germany”.  There were several factors aggravating the military and diplomatic situation.  Worst of all was the devastation suffered at the hands of the Imperialists, Swedes, and Brandenburg’s own troops.  An estimated 60% of population was lost from the war, falling from l.5 million to 0.6 million.  Not only that, but Swedish troops were still on Brandenburg’s soil in l640, with other powerful threatening neighbors, such as Poland to the east and France to the west.  To meet these threats, Frederick William’s army consisted mainly of unruly mercenaries as likely to plunder his lands as defend them.  And he also faced a powerful class of nobles known as junkers who were a constant obstruction to the government.     

Frederick William figured that, above all else, he needed to tackle his military and diplomatic problems by building a good army to protect himself and his realm.  The first step was to use what few reliable troops he had in order to destroy his old army of worthless mercenaries.  One by one, he eliminated his old regiments until he had only an army of 2500 men, but it was a loyal core upon which to build.  Through diligence and hard work, Frederick William built an excellent army of some 8000 men by l648.  This was enough to give him a voice in the treaty talks at Westphalia.  His main goal was to get Pomerania which, although legally Brandenburg’s, was occupied by Swedish troops.  He had to settle for half of Pomerania, but that was more than he could have expected eight years earlier, and it did give him a coastline on the Baltic Sea.   

Inspired by his success, Frederick William kept building up his army and bureaucracy.  For an officer corps and civil officials, he turned to the junkers.  Like his contemporary, Leopold I of Austria, he let the nobles maintain their dominance over the serfs.  But unlike Leopold, who did this to keep the nobles out of the government, Frederick William expected service to the state in return for those privileges. The junkers were expected to serve in the army as officers or as a highly efficient civil service that could provide better support for the army in the way of tax collection and supplies.  They received fancy uniforms and excellent training, and soon had developed a high morale and pride in themselves as the officer class of Brandenburg-Prussia.  That tradition of a proud Prussian officer class as the backbone of the state would continue all the way down to the twentieth century.  As a result of this policy, Brandenburg-Prussia was the only state in Europe where the government successfully allied with the nobles and used them effectively in government service.

For recruits, Frederick William and his successors started to rely increasingly on peasant draftees rather than on undependable and expensive foreign mercenaries.  Such soldiers were much cheaper than mercenaries and much less prone to looting, although not as efficient,.  During peacetime, they could be kept in training for a few months each year while letting them farm and be productive the rest of the time.  By the end of his reign, Frederick William was able to field an army of 45,000 men, with a smaller, but still sizable standing peacetime army.       

In addition to defense, the army also helped Frederick William increase his power internally, since he could use it to demand taxes and enforce his policies.  With those taxes, he could increase his army, which further increased his authority, and so on.  As a result, Frederick William laid the firm foundations for absolutism in Brandenburg-Prussia.

As far as Brandenburg-Prussia’s divided geography was concerned, Frederick William developed a postal system, which better tied together his scattered realm and also generated more revenue for the government.  Even so, Brandenburg-Prussia was still a small fish in a big pond, and a turbulent pond at that.  The later l600’s were hardly more peaceful than the early l600’s, with an aggressive Sweden to the north and Louis XIV’s France to the west keeping Europe’s armies constantly on the march.  Thus, Brandenburg-Prussia’s geography and revived army both forced and allowed Frederick William to pursue a foreign policy that was, in a word, opportunistic.

Throughout his reign he skillfully switched sides whenever convenient and sold his army’s services to the highest bidder or most useful allies.  For example, in the fighting between Louis XIV and the Dutch Republic, he switched sides three times.  And in the Northern War between Poland and Sweden (l655-60), Frederick William at first was neutral, then on Sweden’s side, and finally on Poland’s side in return for recognition of his title to Prussia being totally independent of his overlord, Poland.  This independent title gave Frederick William special status among German princes, who were still in theory under the power of the Holy Roman Emperor.  In fairness to Frederick-William, it should be said that switching sides so often was typical of European diplomacy at this time.  Although Frederick William’s policies gained him some land and the independent title to Prussia, his major accomplishment was holding his original realm together in the midst of such powerful neighbors while rebuilding its prosperity. 

At the same time, Frederick William was every bit as talented a ruler in building his realm economically as he was in military and diplomatic affairs.  There were several things he did to restore Brandenburg-Prussia’s prosperity.  For one thing, he took an active interest in the development and use of new agricultural strains and techniques that would allow crops to thrive in Brandenburg’s sandy soils.  Considering the fact that the vast majority of the populace then was still concerned with agriculture, this was especially significant.  Also, Frederick William encouraged immigration to repopulate his realm.  Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 (which took religious freedom from the French Huguenots) certainly helped Frederick William here, since some 20,000 Huguenots found their way to new homes in Brandenburg-Prussia.  This was largely with the help of the Great Elector, who supplied the Huguenots with traveling money, guides, land, tax exemption for six years, and various other privileges.  Thus, France’s loss was Brandenburg-Prussia’s gain, since the Huguenots were some of the hardest working and most highly skilled people in Europe.  Finally, the government controlled monopolies on the production and sale of such commodities as salt and silk.  The efficient management of these monopolies raised important funds for the government.

Frederick William’s military reforms and concern for the economy caused him to use the army during peacetime to develop public works projects.  For example, the army built a canal connecting Berlin, the capital, to the Oder River, thus increasing trade and tax revenues.  Much of that extra revenue surely went back into the army.  But at least it was partially able to pay for itself in peacetime.  This also kept the army from causing trouble during times of peace and idleness.           

By Frederick-William’s death in l688, Brandenburg-Prussia was in better shape than before the Thirty Years War.  Its population was back up to pre-war levels, while its tax revenues had increased from 59,000 thalers in the l640’s to l,533,000 thalers in l689, over twenty-five times its original revenue.  Its army provided more security than ever before while also giving Brandenburg-Prussia an unprecedented amount of international prestige and respect.  However, this was only the beginning.  Frederick William’s reforms set the stage for two centuries of steady growth and expansion that would culminate in the unification of Germany and its rise to the status of a world power in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.   

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