Kingdom of Prussia
Kingdom of Prussia
Type of Government
The Kingdom of Prussia was a monarchy headed by the Hohenzollern family. Prussian rule was defined by its highly centralized authority, which was exercised through a powerful monarchy and considerable military prowess. Prussian monarchs and their influential ministers developed a highly organized and effective bureaucracy and used it to administer the kingdom’s widely scattered estates and localities.
The history of the Kingdom of Prussia was shaped by its kings. The line of particularly influential Hohenzollern rulers to take the Prussian throne began with Frederick William (1620–1688). After taking power in 1640 as elector (ruler) of the state of Brandenburg, he secured the independence of the Duchy of Prussia from Poland in the Peace of Olivia in 1660, setting in motion the eventual formation of the Kingdom of Prussia. He had earlier improved the discipline and strength of his army, a decision that benefited Prussia in negotiations with rival powers. Frederick William appointed talented and trusted advisers of varying viewpoints to his Privy Council. During peacetime he used his standing army for work on important public works projects, such as construction of a canal linking the Oder and Elbe rivers, which made Berlin a transportation hub for north-central Europe. Throughout his reign and those of his most capable successors, territorial growth was matched by skilled political consolidation. Over time, distant Hohenzollern provinces were knitted together, the army was strengthened, revenue increased, the administrative system was finely tuned, and government authority was centralized. At its peak, the Kingdom of Prussia stretched along the coasts of the Baltic and North seas, from the Russian Empire in the east to the borders of France and the Low Countries in the west. To the south, it was bordered by Austria, Hungary, and Switzerland.
Frederick William laid the foundation for the future Kingdom of Prussia. He established internal order and used his growing and improving army to secure Prussian territories against encroaching foreign powers. He centralized the authority of the state and extended it over those in the nobility who had previously only acknowledged local interests and rights. He conciliated the local estates of his kingdom and began extracting from them the taxes they owed but had been reluctant to pay. At first he used the army to accomplish this, but then he appointed tax commissioners to collect in local communities. When he died in 1688, the emerging Kingdom of Prussia was already becoming a formidable power in central Europe. His son Frederick I (1657–1713) successfully took up his father’s ambitions and in 1701 crowned himself king and proclaimed the Kingdom of Prussia, with its capital in Berlin.
The Kingdom of Prussia’s administration developed greater structure and intricacy during the reign of Frederick William’s grandson, King Frederick William I (1688–1740). The two chief concerns of the Prussian Crown were the administration of its lands and the collection of taxes, concerns for which Frederick William I was well suited. His skill and passion for the work of governing had been with him from the age of nine, when his father, Frederick I, assigned him management of his own personal estate southeast of Berlin. The future king proved to be an energetic and conscientious manager. When he assumed the throne in 1713, he was already familiar with the country estates that were the mainstay of Prussia’s economy.
Early in his reign Frederick William I reduced the number of officials at the royal court by two-thirds and cut the household and administrative budget by three-fourths. His government is best known for establishing the General Finance Directory to handle civil revenues and the General War Commissariat to handle military concerns. In 1723 he stemmed growing rivalry between the two councils by consolidating them under the General Directory, which also handled the kingdom’s postal service and customs duties. It was an important step toward centralization of royal authority. He also consolidated provincial and local government agencies in ways that discouraged corruption and further centralized rule from Berlin.
Frederick William I instituted a collegial system of decision making within the kingdom’s bureaucracy. Whenever an issue arose, all ministers of the relevant department had to convene. Along one side of a long conference table sat the ministers, and facing them sat the department’s privy counselors (legal advisers). A chair was symbolically left empty for the king, who seldom chose to attend. This system had several advantages: it encouraged the fullest exchange of information, it discouraged empire building by individual ministers, and it balanced out personal and provisional interests. In forcing his ministers and advisers to come together to resolve issues, Frederick William I brought specialists and their individual viewpoints together to form a body of knowledge that was greater than the sum of its parts.
Frederick William I’s successor, Frederick II (1712–1786), practiced a broader form of statesmanship while still maintaining absolute power. The king’s Privy Council remained the kingdom’s most important advisory council. Select members of the Privy Council, such as ministers of justice and foreign affairs, formed part of the king’s cabinet. Frederick II continued the General Directory that had been established during Frederick William I’s reign. Besides overseeing the kingdom’s revenues, the directory also dealt with other issues that were only remotely connected to revenue, such as flood damage, epidemics among livestock, infrastructure (e.g., highways and bridges), and the lease of Crown lands.
Between June 1866 and April 1867 William I’s (1797–1888) talented and ambitious chancellor, Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), succeeded in making Prussia the leading state in his newly created North German Confederation. The confederation’s constitution made William I president of the confederation and king of Prussia. Representatives from around the confederation met in two houses of parliament: one appointed from the nobility and the other by elected members. The confederation assumed responsibility for tax collection, post and telegraph systems, railways, banks, currency, and a standardized system of weights and measures for all the German states within it.
Political Parties and Factions
Impoverished members of the Prussian landed nobility, known as the Junkers, provided the officers corps for the Kingdom of Prussia’s army. Service in the military or government civil service offered the Junkers their only reliable route to wealth and success. Their allegiance to the state assured, Frederick II demanded outstanding service of them and punished failure severely. As a consequence, the efficiency of the government bureaucracy and of the military service during Frederick II’s reign was unmatched in Europe. Bismarck is considered to be the most famous of the Junkers.
An outbreak of plague brought panic and widespread death to East Prussia between 1709 and 1710, killing nearly 250,000 people, which was approximately one-third of the East Prussian population. The outbreak coincided with a famine that weakened the resistance of citizens and threatened survivors. Farms and villages were abandoned and social and economic life halted entirely. Royal revenues were affected by the lack of production on Crown farmlands. Response by the Prussian kingdom and provincial governments to the crisis was highly ineffective. In fact, key ministers tried to conceal the epidemic’s seriousness from William Frederick.
Like Catherine II (1729–1796) of Russia, Frederick William I encouraged migration by foreigners to Prussia to encourage new industries and augment the old ones. He believed in the divine right of kings to rule and in the obligation of the nobility to serve their monarch and country in the armed forces. Both of these policies would benefit his successors and aid in the eventual unification of Germany in the nineteenth century. Due in part to his frugality and the protection of industries through high tariffs, Frederick William I bequeathed a strong and prosperous state to his son and successor Frederick II.
Upon his ascension to the throne in 1740, Frederick II annexed Silesia, an agriculturally rich and industrially strong region of present-day Poland. This move not only increased the territory of the Kingdom of Prussia but also doubled its population and diminished the authority of Europe’s Holy Roman emperor in Austria, who up until that time had ruled Silesia.
In 1772, with Austria and the Russian Empire, Frederick II participated in the First Partition of Poland, in which he annexed West Prussia, a strip of land also known as the Polish Corridor, which allowed the states of Brandenburg and East Prussia to be joined, making the territories of the Kingdom of Prussia contiguous for the first time.
Frederick II made the Prussian court a European center of learning and culture. Acquainted with the philosophy and literature of the European Enlightenment, he corresponded with Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire (1694–1778). His interest in Enlightenment thought led him to institute legal reform, abolish nearly all use of torture, and grant religious tolerance in a kingdom that included Catholics as well as Calvinist and other Protestant believers.
During the Napoléonic Wars of 1801 to 1805 Prussia was dominated by France and the French emperor Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821). In 1806 Frederick William III (1770–1840) of Prussia joined a coalition of European nations against Napoléon. Military defeats and a loss of much Prussian territory followed, but fortunes rose for the Kingdom of Prussia again in 1815 after Napoléon’s defeat by the British at Waterloo and the resulting fall of the French Empire.
The revolutionary fervor that swept Europe following the 1848 revolution in France reached Prussia in March 1848. The complaints of the rebellious lower and middle classes of Prussian society were directed less against their king, Frederick William IV (1795–1861), than against economic conditions and the upper classes. The revolutionaries sought a form of constitutional government, guarantees of property rights, domestic peace, and a return to prosperity after what had been called the “hungry forties.” The uprising ended in December 1848 without accomplishing many of its aims, but it brought democratic suffrage of a sort to Prussia for the first time. In February 1850 Frederick William IV proclaimed a constitution that would remain unchanged until 1918. Male citizens became eligible to vote for electors, who would in turn choose deputies to server in one of the two houses of the Prussian parliament. Voters were divided into three classes according to their level of taxable income, and each class chose one-third of the electors.
In 1870 Bismarck succeeded in unifying the German states south of the Main River with the North German Confederation, making the Kingdom of Prussia the means for unifying the future German Empire.
In 1871 the Kingdom of Prussia became the largest constituent state of the German Empire and from then on its history became conjoined with that of Germany. The Prussian army absorbed most of the other German armed forces and retained its formidable reputation and considerable authority within the united German government. Its aristocratic and essentially conservative officer corps was determined not to relinquish the preeminence and unobstructed relationship that it had previously enjoyed with the monarchy. Following Germany’s defeat in World War I (1914–1918), Prussia was absorbed into the German republic as a territory with little influence on the ruling government. After World War II (1939–1945), the victorious Allies formally abolished the state of Prussia, citing in their decree that it had been “from early days a bearer of militarism and reaction.” Some former Prussian territories were taken over by Poland and the Soviet Union, and the remainder were absorbed into the various zones of Allied occupation in postwar Germany.
Clark, Christopher. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.
Haffner, Sebastian. The Rise and Fall of Prussia. Translated by Ewald Osers. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980.
Tuttle, Herbert. History of Prussia. New York: AMS Press, 1971.