In the earliest period of European history, the name Prussia was applied to lands along the southeast coast of the Baltic Sea. Over the centuries Prussian territories increased, mostly through conquest, until they came to include great parts of present-day Poland and most of Germany. By the late 19th century Prussia was a great military power. Through its efforts the German states, for the first time, were unified as a single nation in 1871. Prussia remained the dominant military power of Germany until the end of World War I. Thereafter it was largely an administrative unit of Germany. After the end of World War II, the victorious Allies abolished Prussia altogether on March 1, 1947.

The earliest Prussia consisted of tribal lands inhabited by an Indo-European people. They lived in the territory between the Vistula and lower Niemen rivers. Ethnically they were not German. They belonged to the Baltic family of peoples, along with their Latvian and Lithuanian neighbors.

In 1230 the Polish duke, Conrad of Mazovia, gave land to the Knights of the Teutonic Order in return for their assistance in resisting Prussian raids on his territory. (See also Crusading Orders.) The Teutonic Order subdued the Prussians, built a network of castles, and settled German families on the conquered lands. The Germans and those upper-class native Prussians who would acknowledge the new rulers became the landed nobility, while the remainder of the native Prussians remained a peasant class. A Prussian revolt of 1261 was put down with difficulty, and a systematic settlement of Prussia by German peasants was begun. By the middle of the 14th century, the majority of the inhabitants were German-speaking.

Poland and Lithuania combined to defeat the Teutonic Order in the battle of Tannenberg in 1410. Poland then established a corridor known as Royal Prussia between East Prussia and German lands in the west. In 1525 East Prussia was transformed into a duchy under Albert of Hohenzollern. In 1618 the duchy passed into the hands of John Sigismund, Hohenzollern elector of Brandenburg. The union of Brandenburg, with its capital at Berlin, and East Prussia laid the foundation of the Kingdom of Prussia.

It was the task of the Great Elector, Frederick William (ruled 1640-88), and of his successors to round out, consolidate, and strengthen these scattered possessions into a strong military state. Long wars with the Slavs and the absence of defensible frontiers had already given a military stamp to the Brandenburg-Prussian power. The Great Elector’s son, Frederick I, won the title “king in Prussia” in 1701. His son, the father of Frederick the Great, is chiefly remembered for his astute buildup of the Prussian army. He raised the army to 80,000, effectively making the whole state a military machine. In so doing he laid the foundation for the German General Staff, which became prominent in the 19th century.

Frederick the Great (Frederick II) was a military genius who reigned from 1740 to 1786 (see Frederick the Great). He invaded Silesia in 1740, thus launching the War of the Austrian Succession. In 1744 he acquired East Frisia on the North Sea coast. He finally gained control of Silesia in 1763, nearly doubling the size of Prussian territory. In 1772 he annexed Poland’s Royal Prussia.

Frederick William II (ruled 1786-97) continued to enlarge the territory, but he and his son Frederick William III were not as capable militarily as their great predecessor. When Prussia met the armies of Napoleon on the field of Jena in 1806, its forces were crushed. Reorganization of the army and bureaucracy carried out by Karl Stein, the king’s chief minister, enabled Prussia to take part in the final overthrow of Napoleon in 1813-15. As a result most of the territories lost to the French were restored and others were added. The Zollverein, or customs union, helped to pave the way for political union of the German states under Prussian leadership. As a result of revolutionary movements of 1848-49, the Prussian king granted a constitution, but it contained few democratic features.

In 1858 William I became regent for the insane Frederick William IV, and in 1861 he became king. With the help of his minister of war, Albrecht von Roon, he restored Prussia’s military excellence. In 1862 Otto von Bismarck was brought into the government (see Bismarck, Otto von). He became the architect of German unity.

Bismarck provoked war with Denmark in 1864, with Austria in 1866, and with France in 1870. These wars brought Prussia increased territory and the coveted German hegemony. Schleswig-Holstein, the kingdom of Hanover, Nassau, Hesse-Cassel, and Frankfurt am Main were all absorbed into Prussia. The Franco-Prussian War established Prussia’s position as the leading state in the new German Reich, or kingdom. It also ended the rule of Napoleon III in France and unwittingly laid the groundwork for World War I in France’s anger over the loss of Alsace and Lorraine (see Franco-Prussian War).

On Jan. 18, 1871, the Prussian king was proclaimed emperor as William I (1871-88) of the new German Empire. The history of Prussia thereafter merged with that of Germany. Prussia practically controlled the empire. It included two thirds of Germany’s population. In all the new German state consisted of four kingdoms, five grand duchies, 12 duchies and principalities, and three free cities–Hamburg, Lubeck, and Bremen. Alsace and Lorraine were treated as a conquered province and ruled by an imperial governor.

The chief difference between old Prussia and the new Germany was the establishment of the Reichstag, or parliament. From that time the government became subject to conflicts between political parties. Bismarck’s position became less clear under the new system. He insisted that as chancellor his loyalty was to the emperor, while the politicians insisted that his obligation was to the Reichstag.

William I died in 1888. After the short reign of his son Frederick III, William II became emperor (see William, Emperors of Germany). In 1890 he forced the resignation of Bismarck in order to govern more directly himself and to avoid having a powerful politician between himself and the people.

Alliances made during and after Bismarck’s era put Germany on the side of Austria-Hungary when World War I began. At the war’s end William II was forced to abdicate as German emperor and king of Prussia. The treaty of peace ended Prussia’s political supremacy. A republican form of government was established in 1918 (see Weimar Republic). Prussia lost part of Silesia, Pozan, and West Prussia to Poland; Memel to Lithuania; and northern Schlesweig to Denmark. Gdansk became an independent, free city.

In 1933 the National Socialists placed Prussia under the absolute rule of a governor. Prussia absorbed the state of Waldeck in 1929 and in 1937 was given the state of Lubeck and portions of the states of Hamburg and Oldenburg. Prussian areas were given to Hamburg and Oldenburg in return. In 1939 its area was 114,527 square miles (296,624 square kilometers). World War II devastated the industrial areas, and after Germany’s surrender this artificial state was abolished by the Allies in 1947.

East Prussia, formerly the easternmost province of Prussia, on Baltic Sea; 14,401 sq mi (37,298 sq km); cap. Konigsberg; in 1945 n. part of East Prussia was included in U.S.S.R., s. part in Poland

West Prussia, former district of e. Germany on Baltic, 9,862 sq mi (25,542 sq km); by Treaty of Versailles larger part went to Poland; remainder in e. border district (Grenzmark) of Pomerania went to Poland in 1945.

Frederick William I (1688-1740), king of Prussia; came to throne 1713; the real founder of modern Prussia; left Prussia world’s third military power and on sound financial basis.

FREDERICK THE GREAT (1712-86; ruled 1740-86)

The boy who was to become a great military leader and king of Prussia began his career hating the life of a soldier. Frederick II was born on Jan. 24, 1712, in Berlin. His father was King Frederick William I. His mother was Princess Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, sister of George II of England.

Frederick’s father insisted on a practical, military education for his son. The boy preferred music, art, and literature. He rebelled against tobacco, drinking, and hunting, which his father believed were natural pleasures of royalty. The king forbade the prince’s tutors to teach him Latin, but he studied it and the classics in secret.

As Frederick became older, the relationship between father and son grew worse. Frederick’s mother and his sister Wilhelmina sided with him against his father. This further enraged the stubborn king, who cared for nothing except the state of Prussia. He was horrified by the thought that this youth would one day be king and might wreck Prussia by his incompetence. He became more and more severe with his son, hitting him in public and even beating him with a cane in front of army troops.

When Frederick was 18 years old, he tried to escape the tyranny of his father by running away. Caught before he crossed the border, he was locked in solitary confinement for a time. From a window of his cell he was forced to watch the execution of his closest friend, who had accompanied him in his flight. For a time the cruel king even thought of putting his son to death as a military deserter.

After this incident young Frederick was changed. He became ruthless, crafty, and cynical. He now began training to succeed his father. Gradually the old king gave his son ever greater responsibilities. In 1733, under orders of his father, Frederick married Princess Elizabeth Christina, daughter of the duke of Brunswick-Bevern.

Frederick’s Reign

When he came to the throne at the age of 28, Frederick had a keen mind, a strong character, and an ambition that soon engulfed Europe in war. He was to rule for 46 years, from 1740 to 1786. The first 23 years were devoted chiefly to warfare; the second, to peace and recovery. During the first half of his reign Frederick proved that as a soldier he had no equal. His last 23 years of rule showed that he was one of the enlightened despots of the 1700s.

Frederick II worked hard. He acted as his own prime minister and treated his advisers as clerks. Yet, in his few leisure hours he wrote poetry and history. Once he invited the French philosopher Voltaire to his Potsdam palace of Sans Souci. The two soon quarreled, however. (See also Voltaire.)

Immediately after he had become king, Frederick acted on his own advice: “Take what you can; you are never wrong unless you are obliged to give it back.” He seized the rich Austrian province of Silesia, which plunged most of Europe into war (see Seven Years’ War). It was in this series of struggles, which lasted for more than 20 years, that Frederick’s military genius won him the title “The Great.” Later he annexed West Prussia through the first partition of Poland.

During the first half of his rule Frederick truly made war the “national industry” of his country. His aggressive campaigns transformed Prussia from a minor state into a major power and nearly doubled the country’s size by conquest and by diplomacy. Once he had satisfied his territorial ambitions Frederick undertook great public works and encouraged education, industry, and immigration.

Frederick the Great died on Aug. 17, 1786, on the eve of the French Revolution, an event that shook forever the power of kings. Thus he was the last great absolute monarch in Western Europe

SEVEN YEARS’ WAR (1756-63)

During the early part of the 18th century, both France and England sought undisputed supremacy of the seas. Each nation tried to outdo the other in forming military alliances. Diplomatic intrigues stemming from these alliances created bitter rivalries among European powers. The political atmosphere was so tense that even a small incident could provoke a major war.

Such an incident occurred in 1740 when Frederick the Great of Prussia seized the Austrian province of Silesia (see Frederick the Great). This act touched off the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), of which the First and Second Silesian Wars were phases (see Austria-Hungary). Maria Theresa, the Austrian ruler, made two attempts to regain her stolen territory, but both failed (see Maria Theresa).

For the next eight years there was a lull in the conflict. During this time Maria Theresa obtained the support of France, Russia, Sweden, and Saxony. It was thought that Frederick could be subdued by surrounding his forces in Silesia. In 1756 Maria Theresa prepared to try for a third time to recapture Silesia. Frederick, however, learned of her plans. Before Austria and its new allies could strike, Frederick moved into Saxony. This sparked the Third Silesian War, better known as the Seven Years’ War.

League of the Three Petticoats

In the War of the Austrian Succession, England had sided with Austria while France supported Prussia. Between 1748 and 1756, however, a “diplomatic revolution” in Europe reversed these alliances.

In England, William Pitt the Elder was maintaining that Britain’s coming struggle with France for new colonies would be won in Europe, not in the New World (see Pitt Family). To strengthen England’s position, he advocated military pacts with dependable allies. Impressed with Frederick’s military genius, Pitt negotiated a treaty with Prussia.

Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, Maria Theresa’s foreign minister, immediately recognized the threat this new alliance posed for Austria. He urged Maria Theresa to forget the 250-year-old feud between the Bourbons (France) and the Hapsburgs (Austria) and to seek the aid of France. Largely through the influence of Madame Pompadour–French King Louis XV’s mistress–France became Austria’s ally. When Russian Empress Elizabeth joined the alliance, it became known as the League of the Three Petticoats.

A War on Three Continents

After taking Saxony, Frederick invaded Bohemia. He won three decisive battles in 1757. He defeated the Austrians at Prague in May. In November he routed the French at Rossbach. One month later he crushed the Austrians and the Swedes at Leuthen.

In 1760 George III ascended the English throne. He was not one of Pitt’s admirers. Pitt was forced to resign in 1761. Shortly thereafter English money subsidies to Prussia were cut off, placing Frederick in an awkward position. This was relieved in 1762, when Elizabeth of Russia died. Peter III, her successor, made a quick peace with Prussia. Sweden and France also deserted the alliance. Deciding it was too weak to carry on alone, Austria made peace with Prussia on Feb. 15, 1763. Silesia remained a Prussian possession.

The Seven Years’ War was only one phase of a conflict that raged on three continents. France was a loser in all sectors. It lost its American possessions in the French and Indian War. It was also defeated when it tried to intrude on England’s control of trade with India. The prolonged struggles in America and in India were ended by the Peace of Paris, a few days before the treaty that closed the conflict in Europe (Feb. 10, 1763).

France ceded the whole of Canada and various islands in the West Indies to Britain. French trading stations captured in India were restored but not refortified. Spain ceded Florida to Britain. France compensated Spain by giving up the Louisiana country west of the Mississippi.

Prussia was now a major power in Europe, France had lost an empire and was approaching the French Revolution, and Britain had an empire on which “the sun never set.”


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