prussia's giant soldiers -- 4/26/17

Today's selection -- from A Concise History of Germany by Mary Fulbrook. In the years before 1870, when Germany coalesced into a single country, Prussia rose from the unpromising sandy soil of northern Germany to become one of the dominant powers of Europe and to eclipse the previously dominant germanic country of Austria. Prussia was an ethnic, linguistic, and religious polyglot, which, when coupled with its poor geography and economy, made tightly centralized government possible and even necessary. It was on this centralized government that a formidable military culture was built. Later, this same autocratic, centralized government led to rapid industrial success, allowing it to quickly bypass England as Europe's leading industrial powerhouse:

"The clearest case of the development of absolutism and the enhanced powers of the ruler in an increasingly bureaucratised state -- and the most significant case for the subsequent course of German history -- was that of Brandenburg-Prussia. Starting from rather un­promising beginnings -- with its capital, Berlin, located in the infertile soil of what was known as the 'sand-box of Europe' -- this state rose within a few generations to become one of the major European powers. The Hohenzollern dynasty originated in Swabia, and had by a series of haphazard processes and skillful marriage diplomacy over the centuries acquired a diverse set of territories. Its main centre by the seventeenth century was Brandenburg, which gave the rulers the title of 'Elector' of the Holy Roman Empire. The Hohenzollerns also ruled over the old colonial territory of the Teutonic Knights in East Prussia, outside the Holy Roman Empire ... These eastern territories, however, were also somewhat problematic for rulers in that many of their Slavic subjects neither spoke German, nor shared German Christian and Roman cultural traditions. The Hohenzollerns also possessed certain culturally and economically distinct territories in the Rhenish provinces in the west. Brandenburg-Prussia thus repre­sented not a 'unitary' state (like England) but rather a 'composite' state made up of many very different elements, with different cul­tural traditions, socioeconomic structures, and political institutions.

James Kirkland, one of Frederick William's giants

"The economically more prosperous western parts contrasted with the eastern colonial provinces, with their relative paucity of urban life, their impoverished nobility (known as the Prussian Junkers), lack of trade and industry, and distance from the main commercial and cultural centres of Europe. The subjects of this composite state professed different religious confessions, with Calvinist rulers recog­nising an established Lutheran church, while there were Catholic populations in the west, in addition to a number of smaller religious minorities, such as exiled French Huguenots. ... Nor did all subjects speak German: Slavic languages, such as Polish and Lithuanian, predominated in the eastern provinces. From out of this relatively unpromising heritage, Hohenzollern rulers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries managed to forge a powerful centralised state, which was to dominate German affairs until its abolition in the aftermath of the Second World War.

"To a certain extent, apparent disadvantages were advantages from the point of view of instituting absolutist rule. Weak towns and poor nobles were more easily picked off or co-opted, and resistance to the centralisation of power was less. The Hohenzollern dynasty was also simply lucky during this period in having an unbroken, and uncontested, succession of long-lived male rulers: the 'Great Elector' Frederick William (reigned 1640-88); the Elector Frederick III/King Frederick I (1688-1713, becoming King in 1701); the 'Soldier King' Frederick William I (reigned 1713-40); and 'Frederick the Great', King Frederick II (1740-86). Between them, these rulers built up and then exercised a formidable set of powers. ...

"The 'Soldier King' Frederick William I despised what he considered to be the frivolity and luxury of his father's court, and turned his attention rather to building up the army and bureau­cracy. A fanatic in military matters, Frederick William I sought out tall men for his prize troop of 'giant soldiers'; since contemporaries tended to laugh at this, it enabled him to build up an army almost un­noticed. In 1733, the canton system for the organisation of peasants for military training and service was finalised and made uniform, compromising between the needs of agriculture and the needs of the army, and enabling Brandenburg-Prussia to have a formidable army and a trained reserve without the expense involved in maintaining a standing army. Between a half and two-thirds of the nobility were ei­ther active or retired army officers, except in the western provinces. By the end of Frederick William's reign in 1740, perhaps 80 per cent of state revenues were spent on the army in peacetime; in the later eighteenth century, the joke was current that Prussia was not a coun­try with an army, but rather an army with a country. ...

"Thus a combination of relatively weak towns, an economically impoverished nobility, and an oppressed and servile peasantry per­mitted successive rulers of Brandenburg-Prussia to re-organise the administration of their diverse, territorially scattered possessions, with a progressive centralisation of power. They also -- particularly under Frederick I and Frederick William I -- made use of a herterodox religious movement, Pietism (on which more in a moment) to centralise ideological loyalty. Pietism was sponsored to become a form of state religion, effectively displacing the entrenched Lutheran orthodoxy which tended to sustain the local power bases of the provincial nobles on whom they were dependent for patronage."



Mary Fulbrook


A Concise History of Germany


Cambridge University Press


Copyright Cambridge University Press 1991


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