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Age of Realism

The Rise of Prussia

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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Germany of the 18th century was a jigsaw puzzle of many small states, some mere geographical pinpoints, with the possibility of national growth checked by a mess of virtually independent princes. The Holy Roman Empire still existed but only in name.

After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the Emperor in theory still had considerable power but in actual fact the rulers of the various states were practically independent. There was an imperial diet but it was almost impossible to formulate laws and more impossible to carry them out.

Economically Germany was disunited, with tariff barriers netting up both land and rivers. There was also a lack of a monetary standard, the lower Rhenish circle alone having over 60 mints. The Holy Roman Empire, in short, was on the verge of collapse.


In 1417 the Emperor Sigismund rewarded Frederick of Hohenzollern for his services by granting him sovereignty of the Mark of Brandenburg, a buffer state against the Slavs. The territory was gradually added to, especially in 1618 when the Hohenzollern prince inherited East Prussia.

Until the time of Frederick William, who inherited the throne during the 30 Years War, Brandenburg-Prussia was ravaged by friend and foe alike. As a result, Frederick William decided to build up an adequate army to protect his territories. By the end of his reign, the army numbered some 27 000 soldiers and Brandenburg-Prussia was second only to Austria as the strongest power in Germany.

Frederick III (1688-1713) lacked statesmanship and talent for rigid economy and, as a result, Brandenburg-Prussia slowly regressed but in 1700, during the war of the Spanish Succession, he lent aid to Austria on condition that he be recognised as King. His wish was granted and he become known simply as King in Prussia but the title was soon changed to Frederick I King of Prussia.

Frederick William I (1713-1740) who succeeded him was both eccentric and course but he worked with great energy and continued to centralize the Prussian state, and encouraged commerce and industry. He kept a strict control over the economy and increased the army to 83 000 men, which made it the fourth largest in Europe, although it was in fact not used during his life-time but went into operation during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740- 1748).

The Emperor Charles VI had no son but he tried to ensure that Marie Theresa would succeed him, struggling for that objective for some 20 years until all the important states of Europe had signed the Pragmatic Sanction which guaranteed her succession to the Habsburg claims. Austria, however, had an inadequate army and insufficient finances to defend the claim by force if necessary.

When Charles died in 1740, a number of monarchs cherished claims to parts of the Habsburg territory. Frederick II of Prussia (Frederick the Great) claimed Silesia and marched in without even bothering to declare war. Austria was caught unprepared and watched helpless which encouraged other states to push their claims.

An alliance was quickly formed between France, Spain and Bavaria against Austria, joined later by Saxony and Sardinia, although Britain supported Austria because of British colonial rivalry with France and her interests in Germany.

Frederick the Great was at first bought off by Austria but, with the success of the French and Bavarian forces, he feared that he might end up on the wrong side and so resumed the war. Britain, wishing to concentrate attention of France, forced Marie Theresa to conclude the Treaty of Berlin with Prussia which ceded Silesia to Prussia in 1742.


Eventually the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 concluded the war. It recognised Marie Theresa as ruler of the Habsburg dominions, conferred Prussian possession of Silesia and restored all other conquests to Austria.

But it really settled nothing because Austria could not accept the loss of Silesia, while France came away from the war empty-handed. Another war was therefore almost unavoidable and so, in the intervening 8 years, a diplomatic revolution took place in which almost all the countries made new alliances.

Austria had no interest in Britain's colonial quarrels and Silesia was unimportant to Britain. Moreover, Britain's interests in Hanover make it highly unlikely that she would go to war against Prussia. If Austria were to side with France, on the other hand, she would have no fear from her German or Italian side and would no longer fear that France would incite the Turks into attacking Hungary. Austria was also in the position to buy off France by giving away the Netherlands which was useless to her by coveted by France.

Britain, on the other hand, had a colonial dispute with France for which she wanted support from a major European power. Austria was not prepared to interfere unless she regained Silesia but Britain had desire for war in that direction. When Prussia offered support, therefore, Britain jumped at the opportunity.

The Convention of Westminster (1756) was reached between the two powers by which it was agreed to maintain peace in Germany through joint resistance of any foreign invasion. The convention, however, succeeded in driving France into Austria's arms and the two countries signed the 1st Treaty of Versailles (1756) which guaranteed security and reciprocal defence, as well as an army of 24 000 men in the event of either state being attacked.

Frederick the Great anticipated an attack and was not prepared to wait till his opponents were ready. Instead he went to war against Austria in 1756 (Seven Years War) and over-ran Saxony. In doing so he made a serious miscalculation because he thought that France would keep out of a war in Germany but the latter decided to enter the war on the side of Austria.

At the same time, because Frederick himself had declared war, he forfeited the support of Britain. Nevertheless, a change of government in England saw Britain come to the defence of Hanover and so protected Prussia's western front.

The war brought together all of Prussia's enemies (namely Austria, France, Russia, Sweden, Saxony and the Holy Roman Empire) with the express purpose of dismembering Prussia to cut her down to size.

France agreed to provide a massive army of 120 000 troops plus financial aid in the war, and promised not to lay down arms until Silesia had been won back by Austria and various other parts of the Prussian dominions had been returned to her allies.

In return, France would receive certain towns in the Austrian Netherlands although it is difficult to understand French policy in that regard because she certainly threw a great deal of support behind Austria with very little to show for it.

At first the war went well for Prussia and in 1757 Frederick the Great defeated a combined Austro-French army. Then the tables were turned, however, and Prussia found herself fighting on all fronts at once and began to suffer heavy losses. Her economy started collapsing and Britain chose that moment (1761) to withdraw her support, advising Prussia to purchase peace by ceding Silesia.

Frederick continued the campaign, however, and the turning point in the war came the following year (1762) when Tsar Peter III came to the throne of Russia, made peace with Prussia and promptly sent in troops to aid Frederick.

Although the Tsar was soon deposed and replaced by Catherine the Great, Russia nevertheless chose to remain neutral which enabled the Prussian forces to hold out until peace was signed in 1763.

The Treaty of Hubertusburg restored Europe to the pre-war situation which meant that Prussia had to give up Saxony but kept Silesia. Although Prussia had made no territorial advances during the war, she did however make substantial political gains, most notably in terms of political and military prestige.

The state had successfully held off an alliance of three major powers and was therefore recognised as one of the Big Five in Europe. Within the next century (19th) she would be able to dispute with Austria for the control of leadership in Germany itself and by 1863 had become the dominant nation in central Europe and by 1871 was the centre of a new German Empire.

The peace, on the other hand, found Britain without an ally because she had deserted Prussia in her hour of need. She had, however, established herself as the leading maritime and colonial power and so began her policy of "splendid isolation". At the same time, the Seven Years War allowed Britain to grab France's overseas colonies, notably Canada, but the acquisition led to restlessness on the part of the American peoples which resulted in the American Revolution of 1776.


It is possible that Prussian militarism was founded on the ancestral leaders, the Teutonic Knights. The territory of Prussia, or east Germany, had been colonized during the High Middle Ages (about the 13th century) by Teutonic Knights who had been sent in by the Emperor to put down unrest on the eastern borders of his Empire. As rulers they established a reputation of ruthlessness.

The traditional Prussian nobility had been overthrown while the Teutonic Knights established themselves as a new, although alien, ruling class. Even those fairly small in number, they were not absorbed by the Prussian people but rather tended to absorb the Prussians. The Prussian language was forbidden in speech between ruler and peasants with the result that German slowly became the official language of the region.

The quality of the land probably also went a long way to developing the character of the people. Prussia was a barren land with a harsh climate, which caused the evolution of a dour people, austere and lacking in emotionalism and artistic awareness. The Renaissance, for instance, completely passed them by. With the passing of time, moreover, the ruling Teutonic class lost its ties with the rest of Germany so that, by the 15th century there was only the German language in common.

During the 30 Years War, Prussia was overrun by invading armies so that it became necessary to build up a strong army for defensive purposes. The militaristic philosophy remained long after it was no longer necessary. It was in any case the day of small armies.

Great distances to be crossed on foot meant that large and unwieldy armies made little sense and created large logistical problems. Armies were therefore fairly small, or at least operated in small units. It was therefore possible for a small state to have a powerful and efficient army, which explains why Sweden was so effective during the 30 Years War against the forces of the much larger Holy Roman Empire.

Prussia was unique in that it had far more troops in proportion to the total population than countries such as France, Austria and Russia. It also developed a philosophy as well as a political and economic foundation which was high militaristic. Almost its entire state budget was ear-marked for military expense, even if there was no warfare.

In the days of Frederick, the Great Elector, all his personal taxation was devoted to maintenance of the army, even though Prussia never went to war during his rule. He also lived a most frugal life, avoiding the lavish expenditure of the other European rulers, most notably Louis XIV.

Furthermore, the army was based on the landed aristocracy, the Junkers. In fact, army and Junkers became practically synonymous, with no place in the military for any other group of people, such as the bourgeoisie. So much were the Junker identified with the army that most members of the Junker families wore military uniform as standard practice.

A sense of service to the king and state, argue Palmer and Colton, became exalted as the supreme human virtue, a natural device because Prussia lacked any other means to mould national unity out of the amalgam of its population. Stress was therefore laid on duty, obedience, service and sacrifice.

The Junkers gave absolute service to the king in return for absolute authority over the serfs. Serfdom in Prussia sank lower than almost anywhere else in Europe, where the peasant had almost no rights and was severely oppressed. Furthermore, the class structure was virtually frozen.

It was almost impossible for a serf to move up into the Middle Class and the Bourgeoisie could not move into the aristocracy by means of buying landed property which the Junkers were forbidden to sell. Furthermore, there was little by way of wealth in Prussia.

Most of the Bourgeoisie were government officials and the merchants made most of their money by supplying food, clothing and weapons to the army. The economy was therefore almost entirely military-centred, and the military was entirely Junker centred.

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