Thursday, November 7, 2013
Story of Monarchy: The Kingdom of Prussia
The Duke still had to pay court to the King of Poland as his feudal lord, at least for the eastern half of his domain, but this annoyance was done away with after Prussia came to be competed over by the Kings of Sweden and Poland. The King of Sweden offered full sovereignty to win Prussia over and, so as not to be outdone, the King of Poland later did the same. In the end, of course, neither would control Prussia. The duchy became a sovereign territory though still partially within the Holy Roman Empire which made for some complications, particularly as the title of Holy Roman Emperor did not count for very much as only occasionally were there monarchs sufficiently strong enough to actually enforce their will across the whole of the German-speaking empire. During this time the great Prussian figure was Friedrich Wilhelm I, Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia, known to history as the “Great Elector”. He promoted trade to build up the economy and most importantly greatly strengthened the Prussian military so they would not be kicked around like they were in the Thirty Years War. Prussia had already been made sovereign on paper but it was the Great Elector who made it sovereign in fact. He reformed and reorganized the government and strengthened Prussia in every way. He was a gifted leader on the battlefield and would set an early standard for the Prussian warrior kings who were to come after him.
This was a necessity and many people who speak contemptuously of so-called “Prussian militarism” fail to keep in mind the context of the situation. Throughout their entire history the Kingdom of Prussia (and its ancestors for that matter) had been placed in a geographically dangerous position. They were never a large country, never extremely wealthy or populated and yet they were surrounded by much larger and more powerful forces. Today most are used to seeing Prussia or the German nation as a whole as militarily dominant, however, this was not the case in those days. Early on it was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that was the dominant power of Eastern Europe and later it was the Kingdom of Sweden that dominated the Baltic, Scandinavia and much of what is now northern Germany. Even later on in the history of the young Kingdom of Prussia they faced much more powerful countries on almost every side such as the Imperial heartland in Austria to the south, the French in the west and the Poles and Russians to the east. The Kingdom of Prussia could never have an army that could match someone like France or Russia in size and so the Prussians determined that if they could not be bigger, they would just have to be better and Prussian soldiers were trained and drilled until they became a military machine unlike any other in the world. The discipline was often extremely harsh but it was a matter of survival and so in Prussia, the army came first.
Unfortunately for Maria Theresa, the world was first introduced to what a military genius Frederick the Great was. He wielded the Prussian army with greater skill and discipline than anyone had thought possible and soon it seemed that big, powerful Austria was about to be crushed by the upstart little Kingdom of Prussia. Fortunately for Austria, just when they were on the verge of defeat, the fierce, fighting Hungarians came riding to the rescue of their queenly damsel in distress. Austria was saved from disaster but Prussia had still won most of what they had been fighting for in the first place. During his reign the world marveled at the military accomplishments of Frederick the Great. At times virtually every major European power was arrayed against him and yet, he still managed to out-fight them all. Still, even his brilliance could not change the laws of mathematics and over time Prussia was worn down to the brink of collapse. The Prussian armies were filled with conscripts, criminals, many men who were simply kidnapped, the country was drained of resources and it seemed that a total collapse was inevitable. Frederick the Great was even contemplating suicide when, in what became known as the “Hohenzollern Miracle” the Russian empress died and the new Tsar was an avowed fan of “Old Fritz” (as his men adoringly called him) who took Russia out of the war, signed an alliance with Frederick and allowed the Prussians to win in the end. They had been brought to the brink of total destruction but thanks to their matchless army, the military genius of Frederick the Great and a little bit of simple luck, Prussia had survived and the lesson was not soon forgotten.
It took a while for the very traditional Prussian kings to warm to this idea but it was finally presented in a way that was acceptable under the political leadership of Otto von Bismarck. The German people would be united but for that to happen they had to overcome the roadblock that was the Austrian Empire and then confront some great, traditional enemy that would rally the German peoples together. This was accomplished under King Wilhelm I with three giant figures in Prussian history; the political leadership of Bismarck and the military leadership of Graf von Roon and Graf von Moltke. After a little war with Denmark just to get warmed up, the Prussians defeated Austria in less than three months making Prussia the dominant power amongst all the German-speaking people outside of Austria. Then, in 1870 Bismarck was able to provoke the French Emperor Napoleon III into taking a swing at him and the German states rallied behind Prussian leadership to go to war. The French Empire was swiftly and soundly defeated and at the famous Hall of Mirrors in Versailles the assembled German royals proclaimed the King of Prussia “German Emperor” (not Emperor of Germany, though then as now it was often written that way). Under Prussian leadership the German people had been united, the German Empire (or Second Reich) was formed and, with the defeat of France, had become the strongest power on the continent of Europe.
The republic was a chaotic mess and then a frustrated Austrian painter took over the country and pretty soon World War II broke out in Europe. It was another tremendous fight with the military high command still largely dominated by men from the former Kingdom of Prussia who had learned their trade fighting for the Kaiser. Still, it ultimately proved to be a lost cause and the Allies still had not forgotten their favorite bogey man of “Prussian militarism”. When it was over, Germany lost even more territory and the state of Prussia was completely erased from the map. Still, even to this day, especially in the army, traces of Prussian influence can still be seen and proud Germans, regardless of where they are from, must give all due credit for the very existence of Germany to the late Kingdom of Prussia.