Brandenburg and Prussia: AD 1657-1701
Since 1525 part of Prussia, on the Baltic, has been a hereditary duchy belonging to the Hohenzollern family, but they have held it only as a fief of the Polish crown. In 1618 the Hohenzollern line in Prussia dies out and the duchy passes to a Hohenzollern cousin, the elector of Brandenburg.
On the coast between Brandenburg and the elector’s new possession of ducal Prussia there lies the other part of Prussia. Known as royal Prussia, it includes the valuable harbour of Gdansk. Royal Prussia is fully integrated into the Polish kingdom.
Ducal Prussia, by contrast, is largely German – as a result of German settlers being brought there in the 13th century to till the soil and to control the pagan Prussians. This ethnic division, with a Polish region between two German ones, is one of the more disastrous accidents of history.
The isolation of the Germans in ducal Prussia is irrelevant while Europe still has the patchwork allegiances of feudalism. But by the 17th century there is a trend towards self-contained independent states. Inevitably a political pressure builds up to bridge the territorial gap between Brandenburg and ducal Prussia – particularly after Brandenburg acquires another long stretch of Baltic coast (that of eastern Pomerania) in 1648.
In 1657 ducal Prussia acquires a new status, tying it more closely to Brandenburg. The elector Frederick William of Brandenburg succeeds in that year (through a well-judged blend of warfare and diplomacy) in severing the feudal link between his duchy and the Polish kingdom.
Poland is forced to concede its loss of ducal Prussia in the treaty of Wehlau (1657). With the peace of Oliva (1660), the international community recognizes Prussia as an independent duchy belonging to Brandenburg.
This achievement enables Frederick William’s son, Frederick III of Brandenburg, to achieve the crucial next step. In 1700 the Austrian emperor, Leopold I, needs Frederick’s assistance in the War of the Spanish Succession. The sweetener is a significant new title.
There are no German kings within the Holy Roman empire, apart from the Habsburg emperors’ own kingdom of Bohemia. Now, using the legal nicety that Prussia is outside the empire, Leopold allows Frederick to call himself the “king in Prussia” (another legal refinement – the more convincing “king of Prussia” is only allowed from 1740). The new king crowns himself, as Frederick I of the Prussian dynasty, in Königsberg in 1701.
The Prussian machine: AD 1701-1740
The new dignity achieved in 1701 by the Hohenzollern, as kings in Prussia, is only part of the reason for their growing prestige and power during the 18th century. Their underlying strength derives from the reform of the administration and the army undertaken by Frederick William (elector of Brandenburg from 1640, known as “the Great Elector”) and continued by his son and grandson, the first two Prussian kings.
Frederick William’s internal policy has two main features. He establishes a permanent system of taxation, thus removing from the estates general their main source of power; and he spends a large slice of the resulting revenue on a standing army.
This combination of an absolute monarch with a large and efficient army becomes characteristic of Prussia. By the time of the Great Elector’s grandson, Frederick William I, the Prussian army amounts to 80,000 men, consisting of 4% of the population.
The system devised for keeping this many men under arms makes possible the maintenance of a highly trained citizen army without damage to the economy. Half the army is made up of foreign mercenaries. The other half is a shifting population of peasants from Brandenburg and Prussia.
Each peasant is drafted into the army as a young man, but after completing his training he goes home to his everyday work for ten months of each year. Nobles are expected to serve their turn in the army too, but the mercantile classes are exempted.
By means of a tightly controlled and lean bureaucracy, Frederick William I manages to combine this level of mobilization with healthy government finances. In 1740 he bequeaths to his son, Frederick II, a thriving economy, a large cash surplus and Europe’s best-trained army. Better known as Frederick the Great, the son uses these advantages to immediate effect – beginning the real expansion of Prussian influence in both Germany and Europe.
The philosopher king: AD 1740
When Frederick II inherits the throne of Prussia, at the age of twenty-eight, he is an exceptionally cultured young man. For four years he has been conducting a regular correspondence with Voltaire. He is an accomplished amateur musician, performing on the flute and composing sonatas and concertos. He is the author of political essays, including the Antimachiavell of 1740 which puts forward a blueprint for a ruler based on enlightened principles instead of the ruthless self-interest admired by Machiavelli.
Frederick seems well equipped to undertake, more fully and energetically than anyone else, the role of ‘enlightened despot’ which represents an 18th-century ideal.
It is remarkable that the young man retains any faith in enlightenment, since all he has had from his father is despotism. Frederick William, whose interests are limited to administration and the army, is alarmed by his son’s artistic tendencies. He does his best to force the boy into a life of military discipline.
Frederick, at the age of eighteen, lays plans – with the help of a friend – to escape from his father for a visit to England. The scheme is discovered and the prince is treated as a deserter. He is brought before a court martial and is then imprisoned in a fortress, where he is compelled to watch the execution of his friend.
Far from being destroyed by this appalling experience, Frederick seems strengthened. After two years he is reconciled with his father and accepts further military appointments, while still pursuing his own intellectual and artistic interests. When he inherits the crown, in 1740, it is clear that he still retains the ideals of the 18-year-old who tried to break free ten years earlier.
In his first year on the throne Frederick establishes a court orchestra and employs C.P.E. Bach to play the harpsichord. Two years later he provides Berlin with an opera house. But he also does something which his father would have admired. He reacts with startling vigour to the death of the Austrian emperor, Charles VI.
Frederick the Great and Silesia: AD 1740-1745
Charles VI dies unexpectedly on 20 October 1740. Less than two months later, on December 16, Frederick II astonishes Europe by marching a Prussian army into the rich Habsburg province of Silesia. The king of France, Louis XV, hearing the news, describes the young Prussian as a madman. Frederick himself says that the opportunity presented by Charles VI’s death has the effect of giving ‘free rein to his fever’.
The new Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa (twenty-three to Frederick’s twenty-eight) is also a woman of strong resolve, but Habsburg armies prove no match for Frederick’s Prussians.
Frederick’s first victory over the Austrians (at Mollwitz in April 1741) persuades the French and Bavarians to join in against Maria Theresa. Their intervention is of great help to the Prussian adventurer, since it fragments Austria’s response, but Frederick shows no interest in becoming involved in a wider European war. He continues to occupy Silesia and to fight battles only in defence of it. A series of three victories in 1745 display his military skill to such advantage that his contemporaries accord him the title by which he is known to history, Frederick the Great.
In the previous year the nature of the war has altered. It has become primarily a conflict between France and Britain.
France’s declaration of war on Britain in 1744 shifts the focus of hostilities away from central Europe. Britain, eager that Austrian armies shall concentrate on France, persuades Maria Theresa to come to terms with her real enemy, Frederick the Great. By the treaty of Dresden in 1745 she cedes the greater part of Silesia to Prussia.
For the next few years Maria Theresa remains in the war as a half-hearted ally of Britain against France. Frederick has sufficient time on his hands to build the rococo summer palace of Sans Souci at Potsdam, in 1745-7. Both monarchs await the eventual settlement, which comes in 1748 at Aachen, or Aix-la-Chapelle.
Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle: AD 1748
The peace of Aix-la-Chapelle makes certain adjustments between Austria and Spain in the patchwork of Italy. Otherwise, with one exception, it restores to their previous owners the territories occupied during the eight years of the War of the Austrian Succession. Bavaria, occupied by the Austrians, has already been returned to the elector. Now the Austrian Netherlands, taken by the French, revert to Austria.
The exception is Silesia. Its sudden seizure by Frederick the Great launched the war in 1740. Now the international community recognizes his sovereignty over the region, the possession of which adds about 50% to the population of Prussia.
Prussian tactics: AD 1740-1745
The successes of Frederick the Great on the battlefield during the early 1740s are achieved with a new degree of mobility in the employment of troops. A Prussian attack is an alarming affair for those confronting it. It depends greatly on the discipline of the standing army which Frederick has inherited from his stern father.
Frederick spreads his infantry out in a shallow formation, usually consisting of just two or three long lines each of which is only three men deep. This gives him a very wide front with equivalently great fire power from the soldier’s muskets.
A Prussian army lines up in this type of formation about 1000 yards from the enemy. It then marches forward, as if on a parade ground, to the music of fife and drum. During this orderly advance (no doubt an extremely tense experience for both sides), the soldiers hold their fire until at a range of about 100 yards. They then fire a volley, reload, advance a few more paces and fire another. The final assault is made with the bayonet, in the socket version devised by Vauban.
Discipline is good enough for Frederick to be able to wheel his line of advance during an attack. Prussian drill and tactics rapidly provide the pattern which other European armies attempt to emulate.
Sequel in Silesia: AD 1756-1759
The loss of Silesia naturally rankles with the empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Much of her diplomatic policy during the early 1750s is devoted to putting together an alliance which will enable her to recover her lost territory.
But Frederick is not the man to wait while others plan to deprive him of what he has won. In a pre-emptive strike, on 29 August 1756, he marches with 70,000 Prussian soldiers into Saxony (lying between Prussia and Austria). This sudden act of aggression takes the Saxons unaware, and launches the Seven Years’ War.
Frederick is the most talented general of the time. But he fails to achieve the rapid and decisive victory that he needs, and he is ringed by powerful enemies. Britain, his only ally, provides him with funds but is reluctant to become more closely involved (unless to protect Hanover).
In 1757 the Russians advance into Prussia and seem in a position to crush it. But mysteriously the Russian general withdraws. The probable reason is disagreement within the Russian royal family. The empress, Elizabeth, hates PRussia, but her heir, Peter, is a passionate admirer of Frederick the Great. Elizabeth’s health is frail. A Russian general who destroys Prussia at the wrong moment may blight his career.
Frederick makes good use of the reprieve provided by Russia’s withdrawal, and does so against great odds. Prussia is surrounded by enemies (Sweden, Austria and France in addition to Russia) and Prussian armies confront them alone on the battlefield. The campaign in the west, against France, is entrusted by Frederick to his brother-in-law Ferdinand, the duke of Brunswick.
Britain is Frederick’s only ally, providing him with a useful financial subsidy but minimal practical support on the battlefield. There is no major British presence in the many battles fought in and around Germany during this war (a small force of some 8500 British soldiers serves under Ferdinand of Brunswick from the autumn of 1758). Britain’s main contribution is through her war aganst France, at sea and in north America.
In 1757-9 Frederick and Ferdinand achieve some remarkable victories, usually against much greater numbers and with fewer casualties on their own side. Frederick defeats a French and Austrian army at Rossbach in November 1757 and an Austrian army at Leuthen a month later. He holds his own against a much larger Russian force in a heavily contested encounter at Zorndorf in August 1758. Meanwhile Ferdinand defeats vast French armies at Krefeld in June 1758 and at Minden in August 1759.
This summer of 1759 proves a disastrous period on all fronts for the French. It is also the moment when the tide turns in the other war going on at the same time – between Britain and France.