1648-1786

1648-1786

THE RISE OF PRUSSIA

After the disaster of the Thirty Years’ War, the Germans began to expand in three directions as soon as a certain recovery had taken place. Emigration, mainly to North America, started about 1680 on a comparatively large scale: the landing of the first settlers who founded Germantown in 1685 is to this day commemorated by a ‘German Day’ kept by German communities in the U.S.A. During the same period the defeat of the Turks, who for a century and a half held sway over the former outposts of the Empire south-east of Vienna, opened new fields for German settlements in the Danubian basin. In both directions German influence, language and trade began to spread. The third, most obvious and most lasting expansion, was that engineered by the Great Elector, virtually the founder of the Prusso-German power. He rules for nearly half a century and, unlike his predecessors of the thriving house of Hohenzollern, proved himself a man with a wide range and a far-sighted policy. Like his forefathers who had held the Electorate of Brandenburg since 1415, he protested his loyalty to the Emperor and the Empire  and coined such popular slogans as ‘Remember that you are German!’ – by no means a commonplace at a time when every German princeling set up as another Louis XIV and as sovereign master over the life and death of his subjects – but in fact he changed sides and alliances, broke faith and treaties, as readily as anybody else whenever it promised to further his dynastic interest.

At different times he foughtalone for the Rhenish counties of Julich and Berg, with the Swedes against the Poles, thereby obtaining control in East Prussia and Ermeland, and with Austria, Denmark, Poland and the Low Countries against the Swedes, who lost all the southern coast of the Baltic except Livonia and Estonia. All this happened between 1651 and 1661. Then, in 1672, after a period of peace which he employed to good purpose in organisation and colonisation within his own largely swampy and uncultivated lands, he joined with the Emperor in succouring the Dutch, who were attacked by Louis XIV. During the subsequent years of the warfare his military fortunes fluctuated. For a short time he freed Upper Alsace from the Swedes, now allied with France, invaded his own territories, he turned back and defeated them in the famous battle of Fehrbellin on 28th June, 1675. It was a period of dynastic wars not to be measured by modern standards; but even so, a volte-face such as Frederick William made when he handed over to France two of the most impotant Rhenish-Westphalian fortresses of the Empire and allied himself with Louis XIV against Spain, thus giving him a chance to take the old German city of Strassburg in 1681, exceeded the usual measures of dynastic egotism. however, his policy was successful in uniting his scattered territories and in winning him independence and recognition as a European power; he enriched his poor country by draining moor-land, by colonisation, by the attraction of foreign craftsmen such as the French Huguenots, and by a first tentative experiment in African colonisation, and established the military prestige of his army. Up to a point his reign was successful, although largely at the expense of the Empire: he had a good excuse, however, since the Imperial house itself confined its efforts to the consolidation of the power and wealth of the Habsburg dynasty, and other German princes were even less conscious of their national obligations; they took service wherever glory and riches were to be gained, treacherously fighting for the enemy of their country if he gave them a high command, an army, or perhaps a marshal’s baton.

This mercenary spirit in the German princes was responsible for one of the most shameful chapters of German history: their selling of their subjects to foreign rulers. Electors and Landgraves of Hesse and Saxony began this practice about 1685, and there is a case on record when one of them ‘lent’ 6000 men each to the English and to their Bavarian adversaries at the same time. Other unfortunate German peasants fought in the American wars and in Dutch colonies, thereby producing a large income for their sovereigns, who spent it on splendid palaces, rich food and drink, and rapacious mistresses. Indirectly this kind of German ‘export’ helped to finance a new development of art and literature, since all the small princes vied with each other as patrons of famous men. The idea of Germany as a nation existed only in the brains of philosophers like the great Leibniz at Hanover, or of some poets; the rulers, of whom the chief were the houses of Habsburg, Hohenzollern, Wettin (Saxony) and Wittelsbach (Bavaria and the Palatine), alternately allied themselves with foreign countries against each other. The Hanoverian heirs of the ‘Welf’ dynasty were naturally connected with England; the Saxons accepted the Catholic faith in order to gain the Polish crown, while the Hohenzollerns, especially the Great Elector, changed sides so often that it is difficult to disentangle that web; in 1688, shortly before his death, Frederick William, furious at the capture of Strassburg by his ex-ally, prepared an alliance with his relative William of Orange, then on the point of becoming King of England, against Louis XIV, but was prevented from carrying out his plans by the French invasion and complete devastation of the Palatine.

The utter decline of Imperial power and of national feeling brought about by the Thirty Years’ War, the state of misery and despair in which hungry masses of serfs were kept by tyrannical and prodigal petty rulers, cannot be demonstrated more clearly than by the numbers of German emigrants who tried to find homes in other countries. No less than 33.0000 refugees from the Palatine, whose rulers were closely related to the House of Stuart, fled from Turenne’s plundering French soldiery to England and were either settled in Ireland and the American colonies or, after many sufferings, retransported to Germany. The population of whole villages on the river Moselle settled in Transylvania, where to this day they are wrongly designated as Saxons. Wurttembergers – Suabians – repopulated the southern plains of Hungary, the Banat, retaken from the Turks; others emigrated later on to the lower course of the Volga. Materially they had little to lose, and what sentimental attachment to his country can the citizen feel whose ruler sides with the highest bidder? During the War of the Spanish Succesion, the next great affliction of a continent that was hardly yet beginning to recover from the previous catastrophe, the Electors of Bavaria and Cologne fought on the side of Louis XIV of France, while the armies of the Emperor they betrayed were successfully led by the French Prince Eugene of Savoy.

From 1697 to 1714 the question who should inherit the heirless Spanish throne was a European, a world problem for which armies marched all over the continent, hundreds of thousands shed their blood, alliances were concluded and treaties signed, broken again and rearranged, bribes given and taken and treachery committed; for the gigantic Spanish possessions oversea would destroy the Balance of Power which ever way they were put on the scales. Two partition treaties failed to settle the problem; in September 1701 a ‘Grand Alliance’ was signed between the German Emperor, England and Holland, to which Prussia and Hesse joined themselves later on, with the object of preventing for ever the union of the Spanish with the French crown and excluding France from Spain’s colonial trade. The battles of Hoechstaedt, Blenheim and Malplaquet, that made Marlborough as well as Eugene famous, were the immediate results; subsequently Britain gained Gibraltar, Newfoundland, Canadian and other territories; the Emperor the Spanish Netherlands, Naples and other parts of Italy; and Prussia, a new kingdom created by the Great Elector’s conceited and spendthrift son Frederick in 1701 by uniting Brandenburg and Pomerania with his eastern dominions, obtained recognition and some territory in Guelderland. A kingdom, even if comparatively small and poor – that meant a full vote in the concert of powers, as an equal with other kings and eveen emperors, a stepping-stone to world power. It was a long way from the bargain concluded three centuries before by a Nuremberg Burgrave with the Emperor for the fief of the March, the poor and unnruly border province of Brandenburg; and much bloodshed, treachery and political craft on the part of otherwise mediocre, often stupid, superstitious and cruel Hohenzollern rulers had already paved the way when the first genius among them, the Great Elector Frederick William, brought himself and his country into the limelight.

His son, besides Gueldland, increased his scattered territories by the inheritance of the Swiss principality of Neufchatel, but squandered millions on his vainglorious ambitions. He was succeeded by an eccentric and half crazy son, Frederick William I, the sergeant-king who ruled with a corporal’s stick and increased his standing army to the respectable figure of 83,000, all uniformed and drilled like no other soldiers in the world. Otherwise avaricious and pedantic, he spent fantasctic sums in the acquisition of giants for his guards and would not stop even at crime to secure a particularly desirable specimen, within or without his dominions. On the other hand he created the first really effective financial, economic and adminstrative system, encouraged trade and industry and, at a time when other rulers were squandering millions on the building of spendid palaces – in Vienna, Dresden, Wurzburg, Nymphenburg, Bamberg, etc. – he filled his treasury with the products of taxation enforced by an upright, strictly controlled and exemplary bureaucracy. The first important Hohenzollern rulers, who in effect reduced the position of the nobles by favouring peasants and burghers, simultaneously created a new kind of nobility, that of the high military and administrative officials; in this way, by the principle of subordination to the state, they laid the foundations of that notorious ‘Prussianism’ which was to find its extreme embodiment in the dictatorial, totalitarian state of the National Socialists.

The Great Elector had proclaimed, ‘I establish the throne like a Rocher de Bronce’; his great-grandson Frederick the Great was to call himself ‘the first servant of the State.’ The more easy-going, more individualist Germans south and west of Prussia were loath to accept such disciplinarian notions and were therefore unable to withstand the onslaught of a power whose whole existence was organised on military lines. The first attack of that sort which the upstart Prussia made was young Frederick’s breach of guarantee given by his father concerning the succession to the Habsburg throne. The Emperor Charles VI had no son; by an arrangement with most of the Electors and other ruling princes, called the Pragmatic Sanction, he had in 1732 secured the succession for his daughter Maria Theresa. Hardly had Frederick, after a youth full of bitter experience, privation and often deliberate cruelty inflicted by his father, succeeded to the Prussian throne – in 1740 – when under a shadowy claim to the Silesian duchies he invaded that Austrian territory. His army was better drilled and prepared, if not more numerous, than the Imperial troops; moreover, he laid aside all scruples about his obligations as a German prince and Elector and allied himself with France and Bavaria, whose ruler had himself been elected Emperor and held that office, as Charles VII, for three years. The ensuing war lasted until 1742 and gave Frederick Silesia, but it let loose a whole series of other wars in which Sweden fought against Russia, France and Bavaria against Maria Theresa who had herself crowned Queen of Hungary and, in 1745, her consort, Francis Stephan, German Emperor, while Britain, with an Anglo-Hanoverian-Hessian army under Lord Stair, attacked the French on German soil. The question of Austria’s Italian territories, claimed by Spain, and vast if not very reasonable plans concerning a redistribution of the whole central European map, further complicated the conflict and gave Frederick of Prussia another pretext for the invasion of Bohemia.

It is not likely that many Germans of the period knew exactly for what or for whom they were fighting. The unfortunate rabble who died or suffered on foreign battlefields certainly knew nothing about it ; for, as Macaulay put it, ‘in order that he might rob a neighbour whom he had promised to defend, black men fought on the coast of Coromandel, and red men scalped each other by the Great Lakes of North America.’ Macaulay speaks of Frederick’s ‘selfish rapacity’ and of ‘the evils produced by his wickedness that were felt in lands where the name of Prussia was unknown.’ Other British historians such as Carlyle are less harsh in thier judgment of the – undoubtedly – greatest genius produced by the Hohenzollern house, a prince who easily outdistances all other rulers in modern German history by his gifts, his lasting influence and the gains in power and presitage which he won for his own country. Yet he sacrificed hundreds of thousands of his countrymen to his ambitions, and in the Seven Years’ War from 1756 to 1763 suffered more set-backs, including the loss of his capital Berlin on two occasions, than any other great general in history before winning a final victory. He had abandoned France and sided with Britain. The Empress had allied herself with Russia and Spain, and a number of minor power sided with one or the other of these alliances, though mostly with reserves as to whom they did or did not want to attack. It was in its way a world war, and it won for Britain Canadian and Indian possessions taken from France, and for Frederick enormous prestige of his conquest of Silesia. But 13.000 houses in Prussia alone were destroyed, Prussia’s population decreased from four and a half to four millions, public debts took the place of the former surplus accumulated but the thrifty Frederick William, and the value of Prussian, and German money in general, was reduced to a pitiable level.

The ‘enlightened despot’ – as Frederick liked to be called – made use of the twnety-three years of peace that were left to him to reorganise his state, to encourage arts and letters, with a marked preference for all things French, and to establish some sort of justice and equality within his realm. He also availed himself of the weakness of Poland to acquire, by a simple arrangement with the Russian Empress Catherine the Great in 1772 and 1775, large parts of that unfortunate buffer-state between Prussia and Russia. Austria shared in the spoils, for the wresting of which from a Slavonic people there was no better pretext than the one-time conquests of the teutonic Knights in the northern parts of the partitioned area. Frederick’s last years were darkened by an ever-increasing misanthropy, by the inadequacy of his heir, a nephew (he had no children of his own), and by the shadow of a revolution that was not to fall upon his own lands in the first place, but in its consequences to hit them all the more severely. The privileges of monarchy, aristocracy and the dynastic concept of the state were doomed long before they recieved the death-blow of the French Revolution, and a man so deeply interested in French thought and letters as Frederick could not fail to see the direction that hte teachings of Voltaire, Rousseau and others would give to world affairs. Maria Theresa’s son, Emperor in association with her from 1765, and alone after her death in 1780, had an even clearer notion of what the times needed and tried hard to introduce a more ‘democratic’ regime; unfortunately his well-meaning dilettantism and the paternalism behind his radical innovations missed the mark and instead of encountering help and encouragement he met with obstruction. Originally an admirer of Frederick, Joseph II was forced to contend with him; he tried in vain to get Catherine the Great away from the Prussian sphere of influence and let himself be inveigled instead into a Russo-Austrian war against Turkey.

The contrast between the great and cynical Frederick and the idealistic amateur Joseph clearly reflects German conditions during the second half of the eighteenth century. The enlightened despot ends, isolated and friendless, with the bitter saying, ‘A am tired of ruling over slaves,’ and the kind-hearted Emperor dies broken-hearted, when even the peasants whom he has liberated as far as he could revolt against him. They both failed to see that the age of the ‘subject’ was giving way to that of the ‘citizen’ who wanted a say in the government of his country. This was to be a very short period, as far as the Germans were concerned, inaugurated by gun-fire and bloodshed which broke rudely in upon the graceful dances of silk-clad cavaliers intent upon minuets and gavottes, and drowned the divine melodies of Mozart and Haydn. The Baroque and Rococo period had given a veneer of refined, Frenchified civilisation to a fundamentally still medieval, cruel, reactionary and barbaric Germany, a nation that still clung to the old Teutonic principle that might is right and the Devil may take the hindmost. Torture as an everyday instrument of ‘justice,’ the persecution of minorities, Jews, and religious communities still drowned or hanged in a number of German states, soldiers were pressed and made to run the gauntlet for minor misdeeds; petty tyrants extorted legal and illegal taxes from their subjects in order to  squander millions on their mistresses and sumptuous banquets; the majority of the peasants still lived under a degrading system of serfdom, and what improvements were made in their lot were granted as a generous gift by their rulers and not as a human right.

Politically, Prussia had established her predominance in Germany proper before Frederick died in 186. The Empire was in decay; the once flourishing house of Habsburg, which had grown great, according to the old saying, by successful marriages, now confined its interest to its Austrian, Hungarian, Bohemia and other heterogeneous crown-lands, most of them outside the Empire. Prussia, in its main parts, had never belonged to it either, having been heathen until about 1300, under Polish suzerainty until 1660, and having remained Slavonic in all its main characteristics, if not in its language, through all the vicissitudes of its political history. The partition of Poland and the beginning of the extrusion of Turkey from the Balkans were soon to raise Eastern questions that would influence the whole trend of subsequent history.