Eccentric and obsessive, yet hard-working and frugal, King Frederick William I built on his grandfather's work to transform the kingdom of
Prussia into a major military power and enforce the monarch's right to absolute rule.
Predecessors and Historical Background
The royal Hohenzollern dynasty of which Frederick was a member held positions of leadership throughout Western Europe. The Hohenzollerns first gained notoriety when they acquired the Margravate of Brandenburg from the Holy Roman Empire and later holdings in the Rhineland. By tradition, the Margrave of Brandenburg was also one of the seven Electors who had the power to choose the Holy Roman Emperor. The position came with no real military power, however, and a lack of mountains, rivers, or reliable allies left Brandenburg open to attack from all sides. The territory of Prussia itself, which was part of Poland, was geographically separate from Brandenburg in Germany. In the event of a war, this would make it difficult for the Prussians in Poland to assist the Margravate and vice versa.
These weaknesses was exploited by the Habsburgs and Swedes during the Thirty Years' War and the Hohenzollerns were unable to prevent Brandenburg and Prussia from being razed by the two opposing sides. The people were decimated, as were their representative committees, the Estates. Frederick William the Great Elector came to power in 1640 and took charge of the faltering kingdom. He began the move toward Prussian absolutist rule by implementing taxes without the people's consent. The Estates asserted their right to vote on taxes, but were put down in both Brandenburg (1653) and Prussia (1663). Frederick William created a standing army in 1660 and turned up taxes. By 1688, the year of the Great Elector's death, a population of one million supported a thirty-thousand man strong military and state revenue had tripled.
With Frederick William gone, the weak ruler Elector Frederick III (1688-1713) ascended to the throne. He gave more attention to personal luxury than running the nation and was an admirer of France's Louis XIV, whose habits were similar. Frederick William I became king of Prussia after Frederick III's death.
Expanding the Soldiery
Throughout his twenty-seven year long rule, Frederick William I was always fixated on the military. He felt that a strong army was the only way that Prussia could contend with the other European powers. Through conscription, he increased the ranks from 30,000 to 80,000 troops. Prussia's soldiers became the most disciplined in Europe, and the penalty for insubordination was flogging or death. The noble Junker class, who had opposed the Great Elector's absolutism and were now incensed at Frederick William I's desire to arm the nation, were made officers as a compromise. By 1739, only five of the army's officers were not Junkers. Frederick William I did not give away leadership posts to nobles based on family name alone, however. The rank of officers was based on merit. By 1740, Prussia's army was the fourth largest in Europe, its population was only the twelfth. Despite his policy of militarization, Frederick William I did not seek conquest during his reign and Prussia remained peaceful.
Government and Reforms
He introduced a capable centralized bureaucracy headed by him and his ministers. Many of these ministers were commoners recruited on the basis of merit rather than wealth. They succeeded in developing Prussia economically by supporting agriculture, Prussia's main business (and that of most European countries before the Industrial Revolution). Frederick William drew up a manual of Regulations for State Officials, which provided concise directions as to the duties of each member of the bureaucracy. At the town level, the noble Junkers held jurisdiction over the peasantry and handled their disputes. Junkers who were officers in the army were ordered to recruit their own peasants for part-time military service. A compulsory education system, a rarity at the time, was put into practice by Frederick William I. Under Frederick's rule members of all religions were tolerated in Prussia, including the oft-persecuted Jews.
Frederick William I was disciplined and frugal, although slightly odd in several respects. The Hohenzollern family had been Protestant since the Reformation in the 15th century, and, though not a devout churchgoer, Frederick was morally immaculate. Unlike most monarchs of the day, he never took a mistress and remained faithful to his wife, the British Hanoverian Sophia Dorothea. As previously mentioned, he was obsessed with the army and sought to emulate soldiers as much as possible. Most of the time he sported full military dress and often drilled Prussian troops. There are many stories about his eccentricities, including a propensity for physically striking government ministers with whom he was displeased. Most of these are probably myth, however, we do know that he created an honor guard of 1200 soldiers who were at least six feet high and were referred to as the Potsdam Guard. Frederick William I appeared to harbor a bizarre interest in tall uniformed men with big guns. When sick or depressed, he would order a contingent to march through his bedroom in the hopes that the sight of their glorious grandeur would improve his condition. This was the one perk he allowed for himself, as he was disgusted by rulers who enjoyed lavish lifestyles. Sophia and the king lived simply, supporting themselves with the earnings from their landholdings instead of taxes. He did not even make himself tax-exempt.
Frederick William I improved the military and reformed the government, making Prussia a formidable force in Europe. His fairness and disdain for ostentation made him popular with the people, as they were proud of their country's new strength. Frederick's son Fritz, who would come to be called Frederick the Great, succeeded him after his death in 1740. Frederick William I's training of the military would pay off during Fritz's rule, when the Prussian army fought and defeated outnumbering enemies.
McKay, John P., John Buckler, and Bennett D. Hill. A History of Western Society. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, 1999.