The Potsdam Giant Guards were an army
of men under the rule of the Prussian
King Frederick Wlliam I
in the mid-eighteenth century. The king was obsessed with tall men
, an obsession
which bordered on fetishism
and increased with age. The height requirement
for his team of giant grenadiers
was 6 foot (183cms), but most of the men were closer to 7 feet (213cm), some even reportedly reaching 9 feet (274cm) in height
. To make the men seem taller the king designed special spiky headresses
which made many of the men reach up to 10 feet (305cm). At the height (no pun intended) of the army's membership there were around 2000 giant guards
The grenadiers were rarely used to fight the country's enemies, and existed mainly to entertain the king. When he travelled in a carriage the king would be surrounded by his soldiers who would hold hands over the top of him, creating a human roof. The men would also be paraded through the king's bedroom to cheer him up when he was feeling down. The tallest soldiers were painted in expensive artworks; upon the death of one of the tallest soldiers, a Norwegian, the king commissioned a marble statue which resembed the fallen giant. The sculpture then stood in the dining room.
There are many stories about how the king acquired the members of the Potsdam Giant Guard. By all accounts, no cost was too great if the army gained another 'freak'; King Frederick escaped warfare by a narrow margin many times after kidnapping men from other countries.
- One of the king's agents tricked a tall carpenter into climbing into a large box. The box was then nailed shut and the carpenter was sent to Potsdam. Upon its arrival a grim discovery was made when it was realised the carpenter had died in transit – there had been no air holes drilled in the box. The agent who had organised the trick was sent to jail for life for causing the loss of a recruit.
- An Irish giant called Kirkman was kidnapped off a London street. He was delivered to the king at a price of £1000.
- Politics meant nothing to King Frederick: in Hanover an Austrian diplomat was nabbed and sent to Potsdam before his escape.
- Religion also didn't get in the king's way: a monk was taken from a Roman monastery and a priest was kidnapped in the middle of a mass in Italy.
In time the leaders of other countries learnt of King Frederick's love of tall men. They used this obsession to their advantage, sweetening deals with a few giants thrown into the business mix. Peter the Great, another fan of freaks, sent the king hundreds of men over 6 1/2 feet (198 cm). The British government bribed the king with the promise of fifteen Irish giants. On King Frederick's birthday a Saxon minister sent him a 7 foot (213cm) Swedish male, but in time it became obvious that the boy was mentally retarded. The king ordered the boy be beaten to 'train' him to be a Giant Guard but eventually threw him out of the army. The boy wandered to Berlin where he then died, homeless.
For a short time King Frederick experimented with eugenics, planning to breed a perfectly tall race of Prussians, and it became illegal for a tall man to marry a short woman. This turned out to be slower and far less reliable than the king had first imagined, and he soon reverted to his kidnapping ways.
Although some of the grenadiers were mentally disabled or minorly retarded many held highly respected positions in society before their arrival in the Potsdam Giant Guards. There were men from the fields of medicine, law, finance and education in the motley army, from all over the world. The living conditions in the army quarters were horrendous- there were constant food, bed and space shortages, and, as a result, almost constant mutiny and revolts among the giants. Almost 250 men escaped every year, the deserters repeatedly trying to burn the whole of Potsdam down. There was a horrible punishment for those caught by the king's bounty hunters: the recaptured men had their noses and ears cut off before being imprisoned. Many of the soldiers committed suicide and were involved in the mercy killings of others to escape their pitiful lives.
The army, although not officially disbanded, eventually ceased to exist upon the death of the king. The giants were then free to return to their families or starve on the streets as 'freaks'.