"The state of Prussia, which has forever been the carrier of militarism and reaction in Germany, shall herewith be dissolved."
Allied Control Council decree no. 46, February 25, 1947
Modern Prussia (Preussen in German, Prusa in Prussian) existed as an independent Kingdom from 1701 to 1871, the largest constituent Kingdom of the German Empire from 1871 to 1918, a constituent state of the Weimar Republic from 1919 to 1933, and finally an administrative division of Nazi Germany from 1934 to 1945.
History of the region to the formation
The people who eventually gave the country its name are usually known as Prussi or Borussi (in Latin Prussia is known as either Pruthenia or Borussia), and are related to the Lithuanians. The Saxons entered Eastern Europe and attempted to convert the people there in the 10th century, but produced only martyrs - it took the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century to do the job. They ruled the region as a papal fief until 1410 when a Polish and Lithuanian army defeated the Knights at the Battle of Grunwald and precipitated their decline. It was completed after a further period of warfare and the second Treaty of Thorn, which left the Knights in possession of just East Prussia, which became a Polish fief. The Western part became known as Royal Prussia and passed into Polish control.
East Prussia became a secular duchy in 1525, when Albert of Hohenzollern created himself the first Lutheran prince of Europe. East Prussia remained a vassal of Poland until 1660, when Frederick William, the 'Great Elector', secured its independence at the Peace of Oliva following the conclusion of the Second Northern War. His suzerainty over the domain was secured by his promise to Poland to aid them against Sweden in the war, and aided by diplomatic and expedient side-changing. Frederick William centralised the administration of the duchy by taking powers from the town oligarchies and nobility, and encouraged not only industry and commerce but also laid the foundation of Prussian militarism. After the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 he allowed Huguenots protection in his dominion, and they brought with them valuable technical skills.
When Frederick William died in 1688, his domains passed to his son, who was to become Frederick I of Prussia. Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I was in need of military aid against France at the turn of the 18th century, and gave assent for Frederick to assume the title King of Prussia in 1701. He was the only King of the Germans in the Empire at the time, but his Prussian territories lay outside of it. Brandenburg, a dominion of his within the Empire, was gradually subsumed into Prussia, and the state was generally known as Brandenburg-Prussia.
The development of Prussian militarism
Prussia is perhaps best known for its militaristic tradition, so it is worth taking an aside to discuss the development of this. It was, after all, to have so great an effect on the World as a whole. Emerging from a century that was marred by excessive German power, it may be hard for us to appreciate how weak a position the Hohenzollerns were in when they began their ascent to global power. Frederick William ruled over a disparate and indefensible set of dominions, which could not compare in terms of resources with Saxony or Bavaria, nevermind the United Provinces or France. Particularism was rife, which is to say that the various town oligarchies and nobilities were not keen to contribute to the defence of any areas immediately outside their locality. Frederick William, trying to turn this to his advantage, promised to respect all existing rights and privileges in return for a Royal levy to build a small army (Generalkriegskommissariat).
The model of military efficiency and effectiveness in the period of Frederick William was France. After emerging from the French Wars of Religion, a civil war, France seemed weak and ineffectual. But by 1700 France was able to field an army of 300,000 men who were the most effective and least corrupt in Europe, although still horrendously ineffectual by the standards of our own age. Every other country in Europe had to ape the French forces in their own way if they were not to be overwhelmed by them, and the Hohenzollerns began their quixotic ascent to power by doing so. After securing the Generalkriegskommissariat, Frederick William had a small army which he could use to dragoon recalcitrant localities into submission. The development of Western European states and their armies was a two-way process - the state and centralised taxation was required for the army, but the army could be used to enforce centralised taxation and other demands of the state.
Frederick William assembled an army 45,000 strong, which was enough to make Prussia a force to be reckoned with in Europe. Upon this nucleus Frederick William I (second King of Prussia, the Great Elector's grandson) built an army of 80,000 men, the fourth largest in Europe. It was one of the first of the modern European armies of professionals, recognisable to us today. The bourgeoisie, who generated the wealth of the nation and hence the taxes to maintain the army, did not have to serve at all. Most of the enlisted men were either peasants or foreigners, whereas the wild Prussian aristocracy had been reduced to pillars of the establishment as officers. The socially-exclusive officer corps, which was composed of this landed aristocracy (Junkers, pronounced "YOON-kers"), now sought political and social influence through the army.
The conscripts of the Prussian army were impeccably drilled and kept in order by the lash. The institution was built upon discipline and fortitude, and it fared well for the 18th century. It can be seen as the most accomplished army of the European ancien regime, but like so many other aspects of the old order, it became outdated when the French Revolution was unleashed upon the unsuspecting Continent. The revolution in European warfare began with the formation of the First French Republic and ended with the Congress of Vienna, after which the Continent was left to reflect and pick up its political pieces. The French Revolution saw a massive outburst of what may rightly be called national energy, the complete commitment of a society to warfare. Not only was there great technological innovation behind the French armies, but also what might be termed a new social innovation - patriotism.
At the start of the war of the First Coalition, in 1792, the French were fighting for their freedom, their Revolution and their fatherland. The word patria is of Roman origin and, as Marx quipped, the Revolution appeared on the world stage in Roman dress. A group of young officers in the Prussian army observed that this was the wave of the future, and they were vindicated by the catastrophe of the Battle of Jena in 1806. The problem was where exactly to direct the loyalty of the troops. The insult inflicted upon German pride when Napoleon liquidated the Holy Roman Empire and abolished the Electorates caused a huge outburst of German patriotism when the Frenchman fled Russia in 1813. Thus the Prussian Marshal Blücher could contribute as much to the Battle of Waterloo as the English.
There was peace over Europe after the Congress of Vienna until the Crimea, and no significant military engagement for Prussia until the Wars of German Unification. But the state did not rest on its laurels. There was a brief lapse of military tradition, but King William I made his goal the revival of Prussian military power in 1858. The most significant innovation was the General Staff, a set of elite men who alternated between commanding and administrative posts. War as a technical, scientific problem was reaching a new level of sophistication, as befitted this age of machinery. Warfare was increasingly based upon the railway, which allowed the delivery of large numbers of men to a particular point and the ability to keep them there for a long time. The General Staff were in an ideal position to take full advantage of the new transportation technology because they were an efficient body of men able to consider the best use of time and resources.
Time and again the other armies of Europe copied Prussian innovations. After the defeat of Austria by Prussia in 1866 the armies of Europe scrambled to acquire breech-loading muskets, which could be fired lying-down. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 - 71, when Prussia defeated the French army in a few weeks and crowned King Wilhelm I as German Emperor at the Palace of Versailles, every state in Europe copied its structure of conscription, technology and its General Staff.
History until German unification
Prussia grew into a major European state under the rule of Frederick I's son, Frederick William I, who succeeded to the throne in 1713. In the Treaty of Stockholm in 1720 he regained Pomerania from Sweden. Frederick William inculcated an attitude of stoicism into the Royal court, doing away with the luxury of his father's reign and improving the country's financial position. His son, the Crown Prince Frederick, who showed more of a love for poetry than energetic militarism, was openly shunned by his father. At age eighteen he was stripped of his rank after trying to run away from home to England, and only reinstated after applying himself diligently to fiscal and military affairs. Meanwhile Frederick I encouraged industry by forbidding the import of finished goods, and greatly increased the numbers of the army.
The scene was set for Frederick II - Frederick the Great. He inherited the army of his father and wasn't shy about using it. "Military gifts and powers of leadership, a calculating spirit and utter ruthlessness, were his in equal portion," remarked Winston Churchill, a sound judge of historical character if ever there was one. In 1740, Emperor Charles VI died, safe in the knowledge all the princes of Europe had assured him that the succession of his eldest daughter, Maria Theresa, would go ahead rather than that of the issue of former Emperor Joseph I. Frederick William I had agreed to this so-called Pragmatic Sanction in 1726, but this was so much waste paper to Frederick the Great. He demanded that Maria Theresa grant him Silesia, the northernmost tip of Austria, if he were to recognise the sanction. She refused and he invaded, kicking off the War of the Austrian Succession. As Saxony and Bavaria sensed Austrian weakness they moved in with their own territorial claims, and Frederick offered to protect Maria Theresa if she would grant him the province. She initially refused, then granted it in 1742 at the Treaty of Berlin.
As Austria recovered Frederick was obliged to invade again in 1744 to maintain possession of Silesia, and to attempt to claim Bohemia. Meanwhile, the death of the last heir to East Friesland meant it passed into his hands. As alliances shifted around in Europe, Prussia strayed into the arms of the United Kingdom and away from France (France had wanted to weaken Austria, but now was turning away from Continental affairs to fight the U.K. in all corners of the globe). In August of 1756 Frederick decided that Austria and Russia were planning to invade him (in which he was correct), and that France and Saxony were their co-conspirators (in which he was incorrect). He leapt pre-emptively into Saxony and Bohemia, subduing them quickly for the remainder of the conflict, which became known as the Seven Years War. Frederick then managed to hold off a coalition composed of France, Austria, Russia and Sweden with the only real help coming from the House of Hanover, which ruled Hanover and the United Kingdom.
He managed to forestall major invasion until 1760, inflicting huge defeats on all of his opponents. The Russian army briefly occupied Berlin and Königsberg in October 1760, in what was the nearest miss Frederick ever experienced. The war gradually trailed off as Sweden withdrew and the Russian Tsarina died, to be succeeded in 1762 by Peter III, a fanatical admirer of Frederick. A treaty was signed in 1763 with Austria, which basically amounted to a status quo ante. Frederick, perhaps wisely, decided to live out the rest of his reign in relative peace, although he was unable to resist the fruits of the First Partition of Poland (1772), by which he gained Polish Prussia, henceforth West Prussia. He had now united Brandenburg with the rest of his German domains.
Lest we speak only of his military achievements, it should also be noted that Frederick was a wise and just prince within his own realm. "My people and I have come to an agreement which satisfies us both", he once remarked. "They are to say what they please, and I am to do what I please". He was considered an enlightened despot throughout his reign and was particularly concerned that justice be applied equally to all classes. He also wrote thirty volumes of works, patronised the Academy of Sciences generously and advanced education in his realm, making it compulsory at an elementary level. Among his written works were tracts on military science and a rebuttal to Niccolo Machiavelli. He corresponded with Voltaire.
As is often the case with great rulers, his successor did not stand comparison. Frederick William II (1786 - 1797), grandson of Frederick William I and nephew of Frederick II, did much to diminish his country's stature and reputation. Enlightened despotism went out the window, with censorship imposed on religion and the press. He showed little interest in military affairs, in stark contrast to the perfectionist zeal of his uncle, and allowed the army to decline. After the war of the First Coalition against Revolutionary France, Prussia was forced to cede all the territories west of the Rhine (what we today call the Rhineland). He bankrupted the country. His only real achievements were the augmentations he bestowed on Prussia at the expense of Poland. As the partitions of Poland continued in 1793 and 1795, he gained further land. But in 1797 he died, and was succeeded by Frederick William III.
With Napoleon Bonaparte on the warpath, there were wars to be fighting. But Frederick William kept Prussia neutral until 1805, when he joined the Allies against France on the encouragement of Russia and his people. There followed horrible defeats at the hands of the French at Jena and Auerstädt. By the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807 Prussia was forced to cede all its territory west of the Elbe (which Napoleon used to create the Kingdom of Westphalia), to return the land it gained in the 1790s to Poland (which Napoleon used to create the Duchy of Warsaw and the free city of Danzig), and to join the naval blockade of Great Britain. The Prussian Army, though reduced by the terms of the Treaty, was reformed and rebuilt until 1812, when it joined the campaigns against Napoleon. It emerged victorious, and Frederick William III ruled until 1840. He had promised his people a Constitution, but denied them this and crushed the country's liberal movement following the Congress of Vienna.
After the Congress, Prussia was without a doubt the leading German state. Frederick William IV came to the throne in 1840 and showed signs of liberalism, making moves towards popular assembly. When the revolution of 1848 broke out, he promised his people a Constitution, a Parliament, and a Germany united and led by Prussia. In 1849 he refused the Imperial crown offered by the Frankfurt Parliament (he said he refused to "pick up the crown from the gutter"), trying instead to unite the German states under Prussian leadership. He used the army to quell resistance and middle-class liberals fled abroad. Things were scarcely to improve for them under William I, who would become the first Kaiser of a united Germany.
William became regent in 1858 and King in 1861. Ten years later he was Emperor of Germany. William was anti-democratic and anti-Catholic, declaring at his Coronation that he "ruled by favour of God, and of no one else". He appointed Otto von Bismarck as his foreign minister, and the two embarked on a policy of German unification by force of arms - or "blood and iron", as Bismarck would have said. First, united with Austria, they smashed Denmark's power and annexed the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein in 1864. He then escalated a conflict with Austria over these provinces into the Seven Weeks' War of 1866, a resounding victory. This led to the dissolution of the German Confederation and the annexation by Prussia of numerous German states which had been a part of it. The North German Constitution was proclaimed, and the so-called North German Confederation defeated France in 1870 - 71. William I was proclaimed Kaiser of the German Empire in the Palace of Versailles.
The Hohenzollerns' climb to world power was complete.