Frederick William (Brandenburg) (1620–1688; Ruled 1640–1688)

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FREDERICK WILLIAM (BRANDENBURG) (16201688; ruled 16401688)

FREDERICK WILLIAM (BRANDENBURG) (16201688; ruled 16401688), elector of Brandenburg and duke of Prussia. Frederick William, known as "the Great Elector," was the first of the great Hohenzollern rulers who established the Prussian state, which in turn created a united Germany in the late nineteenth century. The Thirty Years' War (16181648) made Frederick William's early years turbulent ones. For months he lay unbaptized because there was no money for baptismal festivities and because no proper godparents could be found. At the age of seven Frederick William left Berlin to avoid approaching Catholic armies, and at the age of fourteen he was sent to Holland to study and to live with his relatives of the House of Orange. He developed an early taste for books, engravings, plants, coins, and all sorts of curios, which later led to the founding of a library, museum, and botanical garden in Berlin.

When Frederick William became elector of Brandenburg in 1640, his lands were a wreck. Scholars estimate that the war had cost Brandenburg more than half its population, and by 1648 Berlin numbered only 6,000 people. His other two major possessions, Prussia in the east and Cleves and Mark in the west, had not suffered quite so much but had still lost population and treasure. To make matters worse, his father, George William (ruled 16191640), had turned over his authority to a military adventurer named Adam von Schwartzenberg, who had created an army of mercenaries that spent more time terrorizing the countryside than resisting the country's enemies. Frederick William began his rule with conciliatory gestures. He did not dismiss Schwartzenberg right away but waited until the representative Estates begged him to rid the country of his mercenaries. He also restored the traditional rights of the Estates of Prussia and Cleves and Mark and granted the Estates of Brandenburg additional privileges in exchange for a monetary contribution.

The conciliatory gestures ended in 1655 when he found his lands caught in the midst of a war between Sweden and Poland. Frederick William adopted a policy of strict neutrality, but, to defend that neutrality, he needed a modest army to fend off bands of Swedish and Polish soldiers. He had created a force of about two thousand from Schwartzenberg's mercenaries, but he need more, especially to defend East Prussia, which was close to the fighting. To raise those forces, he asked the Estates of Brandenburg to provide him with funds. They refused, arguing that they had no responsibility to protect East Prussia. When Frederick William responded that this increased force would protect Brandenburg too, they remained unmoved.

This confrontation with the Estates of Brandenburg triggered the effort for which Frederick William is most famousreducing the authority of the Estates and substantially increasing the authority of the princein other words, bringing absolutism to Brandenburg-Prussia. He began by ignoring the decision of the Estates and using his small army to collect the proposed taxes anyway. The Estates were horrified, but the people paid. Finally the Estates granted the sums requested because they could not think of any way to resist.

From his taming of the Estates of Brandenburg, Frederick William turned to the Estates of Cleves and Mark and Prussia. Between 1655 and 1666 Frederick William whittled away at the powers of the Estates of Cleves and Mark until he reduced them to impotence. Prussia was more of a challenge because resistance to his absolutism was led by the city of Königsberg, the greatest urban center in the elector's realms. In 1674 Frederick William forced a showdown with Königsberg, occupying the city with military force and compelling it to accept his taxes and his officials. By then Frederick William was absolute in all of his lands. The Estates of Brandenburg and Cleves and Mark ceased to meet at all, and the Estates of Prussia met but had little power. As he was reducing the power of the Estates, Frederick William built the authority of his central administration. After all, he needed to replace the tax-collecting structure of the Estates with a structure of his own. This began as the General War Office in 1655 with soldiers serving as tax collectors, and slowly but surely that office became the government. With name changes, it took over the treasury and then administration in general, becoming by 1679 responsible for maintaining the army, collecting taxes, fostering economic development, encouraging immigration (most notably French Huguenots fleeing Louis XIV), and controlling municipal government. In 1668 he laid the foundations of the Prussian General Staff that would evolve into the German General Staff of nineteenth- and twentieth-century notoriety.

Frederick William did not carry out his centralizing reforms as part of a long-term plan or governmental philosophy. Each time he moved against an Estate's privilege or instituted a tax, he did so because he believed it was needed at that time. His reforms had specific, limited targets, but over time they coalesced into a system that many other states would emulate. On his deathbed he still had no overall concept of a future Hohenzollern state but instead expressed his wish to divide his lands into three states, one for each of his sons, an act that would have annulled all of his centralizing reforms. Only resistance from his senior advisers and his sons prevented the Hohenzollern inheritance from becoming three petty German states. Frederick William himself did not realize that he laid the foundations of the greatest German state of the modern era.

See also Berlin ; Brandenburg ; Frederick I (Prussia) ; Hohenzollern Dynasty ; Prussia .


Carsten, F. L. The Origins of Prussia. Oxford, 1954.

McKay, Derek. The Great Elector. London, 2001.

Karl A. Roider

Frederick William

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Frederick William

Frederick William (1620-1688) was elector of Brandenburg from 1640 to 1688. Known as the Great Elector, he augmented and integrated the Hohenzollern possessions in northern Germany and Prussia.

Born in Berlin on Feb. 16, 1620, Frederick William was the only son of Elector George William and Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate. He was raised in the Reformed faith of the Hohenzollern court and in 1634 went to the University of Leiden, where he dutifully, if un-enthusiastically, attended lectures and more happily explored the vital commercial life of the harbor town. His experience in the Netherlands left him with a religious tolerance uncommon in his age and a firm impression of the commercial basis of Dutch power. He returned to Berlin in 1638 only to flee from an invading Swedish army with his ailing father. George William died in Königsberg on Dec. 1, 1640, and Frederick William succeeded him. He was quiet in manner, stocky and robust, with a face dominated by a nose of heroic proportions; in middle age he grew uncommonly corpulent.

The new elector of Brandenburg also inherited the duchies of Prussia in the east and Cleve-Mark on the Dutch frontier. His scattered possessions had widely different social and political systems, but they offered him potentially great influence in German affairs. In the beginning he directed his policy toward a cautious disengagement from his father's pro-Austrian diplomacy, which had led to the disastrous war with Sweden. At the same time he built up his own military forces to protect his exposed states and to give him diplomatic leverage. In these aims he succeeded well enough, and by the Treaty of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years War in 1648, he acquired eastern Pomerania from Sweden, the bishoprics of Minden and Halberstadt, and the reversion of Magdeburg. From that time Hohenzollern possessions in Germany were second only to those of the imperial Hapsburg dynasty. Having failed to establish his hereditary claim to the duchy of Jülich-Berg, Frederick William turned after 1651 to the fiscal and administrative reorganization of his states. Each province sent agents to Berlin to attend the Privy Council, the central governing body over which the elector presided personally.

Domestic and Economic Policies

Like most absolutist rulers of the century, Frederick William had constantly to battle the opposition of the privileged aristocratic caste, the noble landlords who defended their "liberties" and special prerogatives through the estates and diets of the various provinces. Rather than risk rebellion by eliminating the diets, Frederick William whittled away at their influence, bargaining with each diet for the right to collect taxes, appoint officials of his own choosing, quarter troops, and exercise appellate jurisdiction. He took advantage of conflicts between the towns and the landed nobility, weakened the opposition, and created the financial base for a large standing army, which in turn became the instrument for imposing reforms on the institutions of the state. The organization of this army was the cornerstone of Prussian power. Though still a mercenary army on the old pattern, it was slowly nationalized so that by the end of his reign Frederick William's officer corps was largely made up of his own subjects.

Impressed by the economic success of the seafaring Dutch, the elector tried to build an active navy. He chartered Dutch ships to privateer in the Baltic during a war with Sweden from 1675 to 1679. In 1680 two chartered ships established a bridgehead colony on the Gold Coast, and his African Trading Company brought modest profits by trading in slaves with the West Indies. In this venture and in his internal economic policies he followed the mercantilist doctrines of the age. One of his main concerns was to bring new settlers to the land and skilled craftsmen to the towns, offering tax exemptions and subsidies to desirable immigrants. Nearly 20,000 French Huguenots settled in his territories after 1685, bringing important new manufacturing skills and a cultural refinement foreign to those frontier provinces.

Foreign Policy

Frederick William's foreign policy was governed by an unashamed territorial acquisitiveness. In the First Northern War between Sweden and Poland he allied himself first in 1655 with Sweden and then changed sides in 1657 to join the Poles. By the Treaty of Oliva in 1660 his duchy of Prussia won its freedom from Polish sovereignty. In 1672 and again in 1674 he joined the Austro-Dutch coalition against France, and in 1675 he turned against Sweden, France's northern ally. Although he captured Swedish Pomerania and its valuable seaport Stettin in 1677, the Treaty of Nijmegen returned it to Sweden in 1679. Frustrated by his allies, he reversed his policy once more and allied with France in 1679, sitting by quietly while Louis XIV established French dominance in the Rhineland. With the Turkish assault on Vienna in 1683, his friendship with France, which tacitly supported the Turks, cooled rapidly. After the expulsion of the Calvinist Huguenots from France in 1685 he once again cast his lot with the Austrian Hapsburgs and the Netherlands in the anti-French League of Augsburg.

During the later years of his reign Frederick William was plagued by painful rheumatism or arthritis complicated by asthma. In spite of his illness he kept a strict, almost military, working schedule. His tastes remained simple and his court frugal. He died at Potsdam on May 9, 1688, leaving his successors a state in place of the handful of scattered provinces he had inherited.

Further Reading

An excellent biography of Frederick William in English is Ferdinand Schevill, The Great Elector (1947). For historical background see David Ogg, Europe in the Seventeenth Century (1925; 6th rev. ed. 1952), and Cicely V. Wedgwood, The Thirty Years War (1939). □

Frederick William

views updated Jun 11 2018

Frederick William (1620–88) ( Great Elector) Elector of Brandenburg (1640–88). He inherited a collection of small, disparate and impoverished territories ravaged by the Thirty Years' War. By the end of his reign, Frederick's organizational powers had created a unified state with a sound, centralized tax system and a formidable standing army. The powers of the provincial estates (assemblies) were reduced, and he encouraged commerce and industry. Frederick acquired Eastern Pomerania at the Peace of Westphalia and, by his interventions in the war between Poland and Sweden (1655–60), gained sovereignty over Prussia, formerly a Polish fief.

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