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17th century
18th century
     The Prussian machine
     The philosopher king
     Frederick and Silesia
     Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle
     Prussian tactics
     Sequel in Silesia
     Prussian stalemate and reprieve
     Peace and treaties
     Prussia reformed
     Three partitions of Poland

19th century

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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.


The philosopher king: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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.


Prussian stalemate and reprieve: 1759-1762

The year 1759, vastly improving the fortunes of Britain, does the opposite for Prussia. Within less than two weeks of his brother-in-law Ferdinand's victory over the French at Minden, in August, Frederick himself suffers a disastrous defeat by a Russian and Austrian army at Kunersdorf. Within a space of six hours he loses 18,000 men, more than a third of his army.

During the next three years both Frederick and Ferdinand win some engagements and lose others. The early lustre of their campaign has gone. The war drags on. Prussian success seems impossible, eventual exhaustion and defeat very probable.


Moreover by the end of 1761 Britain, well satisfied with her own successes elsewhere, is disinclined to continue subsidising Prussia in an endless continental war. The prospect for Frederick the Great seems bleak, until he is suddenly rescued by an event entirely beyond his control. It is an event which has been long and regularly expected, and which happens now just in time - from Frederick's point of view.

On 5 January 1762 the ailing Russian empress, Elizabeth, dies. Her death transforms Russian policy overnight.


Peace and treaties: 1762-1763

The new Russian tsar, Peter III, rapidly puts into effect his own pro-Prussian preferences. By May he has made peace with Frederick. There is an immediate knock-on effect. Austria, for whom it will be impossible to defeat Prussia without Russian support, loses heart for the battle.

In the summer of 1762 French and Prussian armies are still engaging each other in battle from time to time in the western regions of Germany, but the combatants are ready for peace. The central discussion between Prussia and Austria begins at Hubertusburg, a hunting lodge between Dresden and Leipzig, on the last day of 1762. Agreement is reached some six weeks later.


The peace treaty agreed at Hubertusburg between Prussia and Austria maintains the recent status quo in central Europe. Frederick the Great, twice the aggressor, is again allowed to keep Silesia.

This conclusion strengthens the influence of Prussia within the German empire and reduces that of the official imperial power, Habsburg Austria. It also leaves Poland flanked by two increasingly powerful neighbours, Prussia and Russia, who since 1762 have been in alliance. The development does not bode well for Poland's future. Austria too attends the feast, when it begins in 1772.


Prussia reformed: 1763-1786

Frederick the Great uses the years after the Seven Years' War for a thoroughgoing revision of his kingdom's administration. As with the reforms of Joseph II, his younger rival in Austria, the effect of Frederick's measures is to centralize the machinery of government and to concentrate it ever more in the royal pair of hands. As with Joseph, the intention is well-meaning even if the method is autocratic.

In the shattered Prussian economy after the war, Frederick uses state subsidies to restore agriculture and to rebuild towns and villages. He funds these measures by much improved methods of tax collection and the establishment of various state monopolies.


Public reserves of grain are built up, so that the price of bread can be kept down in years of famine. Standards of education are improved, with strict regulation of the part played by the religious orders. There is official encouragement for the sciences and the arts, and a new code of laws. Prussia becomes a society much regulated, but on the whole well regulated.

Frederick's long reign, his military successes, his ceaseless devotion to the furtherance of Prussia's interests, and his fame as the ruler called by Voltaire the 'philosopher king' all combine to make him the pre-eminent example of the enlightened despot so much admired in 18th-century political theory.


Frederick in his old age, still devoting himself ceaselessly to the demands of government, is a familiar figure in Prussia in his threadbare military uniform. Inspiring both affection and alarm, he becomes known as der alte Fritz, equivalent to 'old Fred'.

The weakness of enlightened despotism as a political system (quite apart from broader considerations of the subject's liberty) is that it depends entirely on the talents of the despot in whose hands all authority is gathered.


Frederick the Great has to an exceptional degree the talents necessary for enlightened despotism. His successors - his nephew and great-nephew, Frederick William II and Frederick William III - prove less capable.

Frederick William II, succeeding his uncle in 1786, scores a success requiring little talent or energy in Prussia's gains from the second and third partitions of Poland. But much of this gain is lost by Frederick William III, confronted early in his reign by the severe challenge of the Napoleonic wars.


Three partitions of Poland: 1772-1796

Over a period of a quarter of a century Poland is dismembered and consumed by her neighbours. The process begins during the confusion of a war between Russia and Turkey. In 1769 Austria takes the opportunity of occupying part of Poland, to the south of Cracow.

Frederick the Great follows suit in 1770, sending troops to seal off the coastal region between the two main parts of his realm (Brandenburg and the kingdom of Prussia). This valuable area, known as Polish royal Prussia, has long been part of the Polish kingdom. Frederick claims that he is acting only in precaution against an outbreak of cattle plague. But acquiring royal Prussia would neatly unify his territory.


The first official annexation of Polish land is cynically agreed in 1772 between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Russia, at war with Turkey, has an interest in keeping Prussia and Austria in benign mood. She accepts the proposal that each of them should annexe part of Poland. Russia's influence in the kingdom means that she can force acceptance of the arrangement on the Poles.

By the treaties of 1772 Austria acquires the region round Lvov. Frederick secures royal Prussia (with the exception at this stage of the port of Gdansk). And Russia takes a slice of northeast Poland.


The next two partitions occur when Russia finds new excuses to intervene in Poland's internal affairs. Russian armies enter the kingdom during a disturbance in 1792, and are on hand again to tackle a national insurrection in 1794.

On both occasions Polish armies offer strong resistance to superior Russian forces. But force prevails. After a two-month siege, and a massacre of Poles in the suburbs, Warsaw falls in September 1794 to a combined Russian and Prussian army.


The second partition, agreed in 1793, benefits only Prussia and Russia. Prussia now receives Gdansk and a swathe of land stretching south almost to Cracow. Russia takes a vast slice of eastern Poland, amounting to some 97,000 square miles.

This is greater than the territory which Poland now retains, in a strip from the Baltic coast down to Cracow and Brody. A few years later, in treaties of 1795 and 1796, this final Polish remnant is divided between the three predators. Prussia is extended east to include Warsaw. The Austrian frontier moves north to the same area. Once again the lion's share, in the east, goes to Russia.


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