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10.4: Prussia

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  • Arguably the most successful absolutist state in Europe besides France was the small northern German kingdom of Brandenburg, the forerunner of the later German state of Prussia. In 1618, the king of Brandenburg inherited the kingdom of East Prussia, and in the following years smaller territories in the west on the Rhine River. From this geographically unconnected series of territories was the country now known as Germany to evolve.

    In 1653, the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm struck the “Great Compromise” with his nobles . He received a military subsidy in the form of taxes, along with the right to make law independent of noble oversight. In return, the nobility received confirmation that only nobles could own land and, further, that they had total control over the peasants on their land. In essence, the already-existing status of serfdom on Prussian lands was made permanent. Serfs could not inherit property or even leave the land they worked without the permission of their lord. One Prussian recalled being taught, presumably in a church-run primary school, that “the king could cut off the noses and ears of all his subjects if he wished to do so, and that we owed it to his goodness and his gentle disposition that he had left us in possession of these necessary organs.”

    In turn, Friedrich Wilhelm oversaw the creation of the first truly efficient state apparatus in Europe, with his tax collection agency (which grew out of the war office) operating at literally twice the efficiency of the French equivalent. The major state office was called General Directory Over Finance, War, and Royal Domains; it was perhaps one of the original sources of the stereotypes of ruthless German efficiency. His son, Frederick I (r. 1688 – 1713) further consolidated the power of the monarchy, built up the royal capital of Berlin, and received the right to claim the title of “King of Prussia” from the Holy Roman Emperor.

    Map of the expansion of Prussia to encompass two large territories in northern Germany, with the territories not being geographically contiguous (i.e. they did not adjoin one another originally).
    Figure 10.4.1: Prussia began as the union of Brandenburg and the Duchy of Prussia, eventually growing to become one of the most powerful German states.

    His grandson, confusingly also named Friedrich Wilhelm (“Friedrich Wilhelm I” as opposed to just “Friedrich Wilhelm,” r. 1713 – 1740) built on the work of his grandfather and father primarily by concentrating all state power on the military. He more than doubled the size of the Prussian army (from 30,000 to 83,000, making it the fourth largest in Europe), lived modestly in a few rooms in the palace, wore his officer’s uniform everywhere, and occasionally punched out the teeth of judges whose sentences he disagreed with. It was said during his rule that “what distinguishes the Prussians from other people is that theirs is not a country with an army. They have an army and a country that serves it.” Most importantly, Frederick Wilhelm created formal systems of conscription (i.e. "the draft"), meaning more men in Prussia served in the military than did men anywhere else in Europe, and he established the first system of military reserves, with reservists drilling for two months a year during the summers. In short, Prussia became the most militarized society in Europe.

    Over the course of the eighteenth century, Prussia was embroiled in a series of wars that confirmed its status as a European "great power." Its version of absolutism, one centered on the authority of the king, the rights of the nobles, and an overwhelming focus on the military, proved effective in transforming it from backwater to the only serious rival to Austria for dominance in Central Europe. Notably, Prussia joined Austria and Russia in dividing up the entire kingdom of Poland in 1772, extinguishing Polish independence until the twentieth century.

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