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The Creation of Prussia: History & Timeline

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  • 0:33 Divided Beginnings
  • 1:33 Consolidating Power
  • 3:12 Later 17th Century Wars
  • 4:09 Early 18th Century…
  • 4:45 Frederick William I
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the creation and rise of the Prussian state during the 17th and early 18th centuries. The keen reforms of the Hohenzollern rulers built Prussia into a fearsome state; one that would later form the backbone of modern Germany.

The Creation of Prussia

Accidents happen. Whether it's spilling a glass of milk or leaving the water running, accidents are a daily part of life. However, the bigger the stakes, the bigger the impact an accident can have. For example, the creation of Prussia in the 17th century - one of the most powerful states of the 18th century - occurred largely through intermarriages and the timely (or untimely) deaths of German monarchs. Essentially, it was a dynastic accident.

Divided Beginnings

The family that dominated the Prussian throne in the Early Modern period was the Hohenzollern family. Originally, the Hohenzollerns were the traditional hereditary monarchs of the north German state of Brandenburg, with its capital in Berlin. Brandenburg was a poor state at the beginning of the 17th century, with land unsuitable for heavy agriculture. However, marriage alliances and inheritances soon changed the fortunes of the ruling Hohenzollerns.

The family's patriarch, Joachim Frederick, married the Duke of Prussia's only daughter, securing the far more wealthy, though non-contiguous, territory of Prussia for his son, John Sigismund. Sigismund ruled the Hohenzollern possessions after his father's death in 1608. Joachim Frederick's marriage would prove even more fortuitous for the family, as when the ruler of Cleves, Ravensburg, and Mark, three small German states west of Brandenburg, died in 1614 without an heir, Sigismund claimed the territories for himself as his mother had been the former ruler's niece.

Consolidating Power

Though it may seem like these disjointed territories figuratively fell into the Hohenzollern's lap, having legitimate claims and wielding legitimate power in those territories were quite different things entirely. Indeed, Sigismund's heir, George William, who took the throne in 1619, had to contend for most of the Thirty Years' War with alternately Swedish and Imperial troops occupying his land and was only able to begin rebuilding Brandenburg in the later years of his reign, after forcing the occupying Imperial forces to disband.

However, his son and heir, Frederick William (nicknamed by historians the 'Great Elector'), regrouped the disparate territories and laid the foundations for Prussian greatness. He was aided by the end of the war, with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, whereby Prussia grew even larger, gaining East Pomerania and a strategically important sea port on the mouth of the River Oder. Most importantly, it granted him the time and peace necessary to consolidate his power in his territories.

For example, in Brandenburg, the representative assembly of the province had long checked the power of its rulers. Frederick William circumvented this issue by allying with the local nobility, undermining the powers of the assembly and building up a large standing army. Additionally, his other Hohenzollern provinces of Cleves, Prussia, and Mark were far wealthier and possessed commercially important cities from which Frederick William siphoned funds to pay for his army and his reforms in Brandenburg. This extraction of money was often through painfully high taxation of provinces not used to being taxed, and it provoked several minor rebellions in the 1650s, 1660s, and 1670s, though Frederick William easily quelled the unrest.

Later 17th Century Wars

While Frederick William paid the price for his centralizing and absolutist policies, the benefits were well worth the trouble. With his relatively quick reorganization of his territories' revenue and his large army, he now exerted his influence on the international stage. Prussia fought regional wars against the Swedes and Poles, further gaining the territory of West Pomerania from Sweden.

In the 1670s Frederick William allied himself with the Holy Roman Emperor and the Dutch Provinces, attempting to check the expansion of Louis XIV's France. Unfortunately for Frederick, only a few years after joining the conflict, he was forced to fight alone as the Emperor and the Dutch made treaties with the French without Frederick's knowledge. France and Sweden proceeded to invade Frederick's western territories, and Frederick finally sued for peace in 1679, being forced to return West Pomerania to the Swedes. Frederick further utilized his military to support the Emperor in his fight against the Ottoman Turks in the 1680s.

Early 18th Century Improvements

Frederick William, the 'Great Elector,' died in 1688, passing the Prussian territorial possessions and centralized government to his son, Frederick. Frederick largely continued his father's internal policies and support of the Emperor, and in return the Emperor allowed him the title of King, becoming King Frederick I of Prussia, in 1701. Additionally, Prussian victories in several conflicts gained the state more territory in 1697 and again in 1713. Frederick also lived lavishly in Berlin and improved Prussian culture - founding the University of Halle and Prussian academies that sponsored the arts and sciences.

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