Thursday, November 7, 2013

Story of Monarchy: The Kingdom of Prussia

The story of Prussia begins with the German crusader knights of the Teutonic Order. After defending Hungary from the Cumens they were kicked out in 1225 and the following year were invited to what is now Poland by Duke Konrad I of Masovia to fight the pagan Pruss, which is where the word “Prussia” comes from. Today it seems somewhat ironic given the somewhat excessive pride associated with the Prussians, particularly as being the quintessential “Germans” and leaders of German unification that their very name comes from a Polish word rather than a German one. However, the Teutonic Knights fought a long and bitter campaign throughout the Baltic region and over time more and more Germans settled on the lands guarded by the Teutonic Knights. Those original German warriors would become the forefathers of the Prussian nobility with many Junkers tracing their lineage all the way back to those crusading Teutonic Knights. Eventually they established their own domain called the State of the Teutonic Order or simply the Ordensstaat by 1230. This established some of the key features that would characterize the stereotypical Prussian for centuries thereafter such as the centrality of the landed aristocracy, the strong military tradition and the national colors of black and white. At its peak the Order’s State stretched across parts of what is now Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia and parts of southern Sweden.

In the complicated feudal system of this period, for the land they held the Knights were beholden to the King of Poland, however, as the order was German and religious they were subordinate only to the Pope and the German Holy Roman Emperor. All of that changed, however, in 1525 when the Grand Master Albert of Brandenburg renounced Catholicism and became a Lutheran. He secularized the order and his uncle, who happened to be King Sigismund I of Poland, made him the feudal lord of the Order’s State as the Duke of Prussia. As a member of the Brandenburg branch of the House of Hohenzollern he also ruled a great deal of territory in what is now east Germany and after renouncing the religious life was able to found a dynasty which became the House of Hohenzollern everyone now associates with Prussia. His son died with no sons surviving him but his daughter had married the Elector of Brandenburg and so Brandenburg and the Duchy of Prussia were brought together. Nonetheless, it was a patchwork family territory and there were constant struggles to defend it, particularly in the Thirty Years War when the whole area was dominated by Sweden, the military powerhouse of northern Europe at that time. It all served to reinforce the importance of military strength in the Prussian mind.

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.

In 1688 the Great Elector’s son became Friedrich III, Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia and it was he who would benefit first from all the hard work of his father. During the War of Spanish Succession, Friedrich offered Prussian assistance to the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I in exchange for his making Prussia a kingdom. This was a little tricky as there were supposed to be no other kings in the empire besides the Emperor himself. However, Leopold needed Prussia and Friedrich could argue that much of his lands had never been and were not part of the German Holy Roman Empire. By this time, it also had to be recognized that Prussian independence had become a fact whether it was recognized in law or not. Finally, just to soften things a bit, Friedrich agreed to be known as “King IN Prussia” rather than “King OF Prussia” which was seen as being less of a challenge to imperial authority. In 1701 the Elector of Brandenburg crowned himself “King Friedrich I in Prussia”, effectively founding the Kingdom of Prussia that would stand until the end of 1918. Over time, the nominal authority held over the Brandenburg half of Prussia by the Emperor would become more and more nominal until it was no more than a formality, easily ignored. After Friedrich I, his son King Friedrich Wilhelm I or the “Soldier King” strengthened Prussia all the more, building a magnificently disciplined, trained and equipped army.

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.

Friedrich Wilhelm I built the army to an epic standard but it was his son who put it to use and in doing so secured the position of the Kingdom of Prussia as a major power that was here to stay. With the accession of King Friedrich II, better known as “Frederick the Great” the Kingdom of Prussia came down with a chronic case of awesome. Frederick the Great was the first to drop all formalities and officially become “King OF Prussia” and he proved that, though a comparatively small country, Prussia was a force to be reckoned with. In 1740 Emperor Charles VI died and his daughter, Maria Theresa, became Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary. However, despite her father spending himself into poverty to buy the goodwill of the other powers to his daughter succeeding him, it did no good and everyone ganged up on Maria Theresa of Austria on the basic argument that she couldn’t rule because, you know, she was a lady. But, lady though she was, she was also one tough chick and not about to let the other powers of Europe walk all over her. She fought back with everything she had, particularly to defend the extremely lucrative Silesia region from the Prussians.

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.

Under Frederick the Great the Kingdom of Prussia had a matchless army, an advanced economy and an innovative educational system. However, things declined somewhat under his successors. The Prussians fought for the royalists against revolutionaries in The Netherlands and joined the fight against revolutionary France, however, under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, Prussia was defeated. The old spirit seemed to have gone and even Napoleon realized that in the past things had been different, remarking to his marshals when visiting the tomb of Frederick the Great that if “Old Fritz” had still been around they would not have been standing there. However, Queen Luise, consort of King Friedrich Wilhelm III helped revive the Prussian national spirit. Extremely gifted military leaders emerged, German (not just Prussian) patriotism was aroused and in the end it was the Prussian army that charged to the rescue at the battle of Waterloo, defeating Napoleon and saving the British who had been stretched to the breaking point holding off massive French attacks all day. The Kingdom of Prussia emerged stronger and more respected than ever. Prussia also became a focus of pan-German nationalism and a potential source of unity for the German speaking people after the Emperor of Austria made it clear he didn’t want the job.

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 German Empire, with the Kingdom of Prussia being the largest and most powerful member state, prospered dramatically. German industry thrived, the German navy became the second largest after Britain and colonies were obtained that made Germany the third largest colonial power. All of this caused tensions with Great Britain and soon the British had formed a diplomatic cordon around Germany by allying with France and Russia. Germany, and her monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II, were portrayed as aggressive and threatening and, drawing on a distortion of past history, “Prussian militarism” was blamed. This was so emphasized that it could seem that the British did not see “Germany” so much as ‘Prussia and pals’. It was, however, a distortion as, during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II for example, Germany was less militarized than France and fought fewer wars than Great Britain. In any event, for a variety of reasons, in 1914 the First World War broke out and Germany found itself opposed by almost every other major power on earth. In the best Prussian tradition the German armed forces put up a spectacular fight but, although there seemed to be a strange sort of repeat of the “Hohenzollern Miracle” it came too little, too late and the German Empire was defeated. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last King of Prussia, was overthrown, as were all his brother monarchs, and Germany became a republic. A great deal of territory that had belonged to the Kingdom of Prussia was lost, mostly to Poland

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.


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