Previous page Page 7 of 18 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
To 7th century AD
8th - 9th century
10th - 12th century
13th - 15th century
16th century
17th century
18th century
     Augustus the Strong
     The Prussian machine
     Emerging states

19th century
The approach of war
Hitler in power
Steps towards war
World War II
To be completed

Bookmark and Share
Augustus the Strong of Saxony: 1694-1733

The powerful neighbour of Brandenburg in northeast Germany is another Protestant ruler, the elector of Saxony. In the early 18th century, while Brandenburg's elector is acquiring a new dignity as the king in Prussia, Saxony is also developing royal pretensions.

Frederick Augustus I succeeds his brother in Saxony in 1694. Two years later, when the Polish throne becomes vacant, he throws his cap in the ring along with eighteen others. He is elected, becoming Augustus II of Poland - known to history as Augustus the Strong. By nature an opportunist (he converts to Roman Catholicism and in doing so loses his wife to win Poland), Augustus soon sees a further opportunity to advance Saxon interests.


In 1699 Augustus makes a secret alliance with Denmark and Russia for a joint attack on the Swedish territories round the Baltic. His own target is Livonia, which he intends to acquire for Saxony (his new Polish subjects refuse to cooperate in the enterprise). In February 1700 Augustus marches north with a Saxon army to besiege Riga.

His action launches the long Northern War against Sweden. But in spite of his own resounding name, Augustus the Strong more than meets his match in 1700 in the young Charles XII of Sweden.


Over the next six years the victories of Charles XII over Augustus the Strong are devastating. The Saxons are driven back across the Daugava river in the summer of 1701, ending their threat to Riga. Charles XII reaches and enters Warsaw in May 1702. He defeats Augustus two months later in a battle further south in Poland, at Kliszow.

In 1704 Charles persuades the Poles to depose Augustus and to elect in his place a Polish noble as Stanislaw I. In 1706 the Swedish king completes the humiliation of Augustus by marching into Saxony to impose a treaty signed at Altranstädt.


Augustus later recovers his Polish throne, in 1709. But his interests remain in Saxony, where he is turning Dresden into one of Europe's most beautiful cities (much painted, later in the century, by Bernardo Bellotto). Here Augustus commissions an early rococo palace, the Zwinger, designed by his court architect M.D. Pöppelmann and built in 1711-20. Restored after bombing, it now houses Dresden's art gallery.

In 1717 Pöppelmann creates for Augustus a palace on the banks of the Elbe in which 25,000 pieces of porcelain are displayed. Herein lies Augustus' greatest claim to fame, because some of the pieces come from his own royal porcelain factory at Meissen.


The Prussian machine: 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.


Emerging states: 18th century

The dominant factor in 18th-century German history is undoubtedly the emergence of Prussia as the main rival to Austria, which has long been the leading state within the German empire. Prussia grows in stature for several reasons - through Frederick the Great's seizure of the rich province of Silesia, through the personal prestige acquired by Frederick himself, and through the vast gain of territory in the successive partitions of Poland.

But certain other states can also be identified at this time as likely players in the struggles which will eventually lead, in the 19th century, to a united Germany.


Saxony begins the 18th century as a very significant power. The state is weakened in subsequent decades, through disastrous involvement in Poland and because it lies between the arch-rivals Prussia and Austria. Even so, Saxony's size and large population give it an undeniable importance.

Hanover is the state which acquires an entirely new stature during the century, from the personal link with Britain after the elector succeeds to the British throne in 1714 as George I. In the wars of the 18th century Hanover has a special importance and exposure, as Britain's continental outpost.


Bavaria, ruled by the Wittelsbachs, has played a major role in German history from early medieval times. In recent centuries a division between two branches of the family has somewhat reduced its status. From 1329 the western region goes its own way as the Palatinate of the Rhine. The split is accentuated in the Reformation, when the Palatinate becomes Protestant while Bavaria remains Roman Catholic.

The Palatinate returns to the Catholic fold in 1685 (when another branch of the Wittelsbach family succeeds to the throne), and by the end of the 18th century this line has recovered the entire inheritance. In 1777 the Bavarian line of the dynasty dies out. The region is reunited under the rule of the Palatine branch.


Prussia has been the first of these German states to achieve the high dignity of a kingdom, in 1701. The Napoleonic wars bring the same status to the other three (Bavaria in 1806, Saxony in 1807, Hanover in 1814). But the turmoil throughout Europe during the years of Napoleon's triumph confronts these German rulers with most alarming dilemmas.

During the 18th century the choice has only been whether self-interest is best advanced by siding with Austria or Prussia. In the Napoleonic period, the new option of an alliance with France greatly raises the stakes. Great advantage or serious damage will depend on the outcome of a long and complex sequence of war and diplomacy.


The profusion of principalities in the 18th century is of considerable benefit to Germany's cultural life. The princes compete against each other in the quality of the entertainment they can offer.

Johann Sebastian Bach is at the tiny court of Kô:then in 1721 when he writes the Brandenburg Concertos; later he is court composer to the elector of Saxony. Mannheim is famous for the quality of its music during much of the century, and in 1782 the court theatre puts on Schiller's first play. Weimar, an otherwise insignificant duchy, is perhaps the outstanding example. The presence of Goethe from 1775 and the involvement of Schiller from 1794 give this little place a period of immense distinction.


Previous page Page 7 of 18 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF GERMANY