Prussia’s territories were scattered across north Germany from the Rhine on the west to Poland on the east. Consisting in good part of sand and swamp, these lands had meager natural resources and supported relatively little trade. With fewer than 3 million inhabitants in 1715, Prussia ranked twelfth among the European states in population.
Its capital city, Berlin, had few of the obvious geographical advantages enjoyed by Constantinople, Paris, London, and other great capitals. The Hohenzollerns had been established since the fifteenth century as electors of Brandenburg, which lay between the Elbe and Oder rivers. In 1618, when East Prussia fell to the Hohenzollerns, it was separated from Brandenburg by Polish West Prussia and was still nominally a fief held from the Polish king.
In western Germany in the meantime the Hohenzollerns had acquired (1614) Cleves, Mark, and some other parcels in the lower Rhine valley and Westphalia. Thus, when Frederick William, the Great Elector (r. 1640-1688), succeeded to the Hohenzollern inheritance, his lands consisted of a nucleus in Brandenburg with separate outlying regions to the east and west. With extraordinary persistence, the rulers of Brandenburg-Prussia for the next two hundred years devoted themselves to the task of making a solid block of territory out of these bits and pieces.
The Great Elector won recognition from Poland as the full sovereign of Prussia. He also tried, with less success, to dislodge the Swedes from the Pomeranian territories between Brandenburg and the Baltic that they had acquired in 1648. In domestic policy his accomplishments were more substantial. He had found his domains largely ruined by war, the farms wasted, the population cut in half, the army reduced to a disorderly rabble of a few thousand men. The Great Elector repaired the damage thoroughly. To augment the population, he encouraged the immigration of Polish Jews and other refugees from religious persecution. He built a small, efficient standing army. In peacetime he assigned the soldiers to the construction of public works, including a canal between the Elbe and the Oder.
The Great Elector initiated the Hohenzollern pattern of militarized absolutism. On his accession he found that in all three territories—Prussia, Brandenburg, and ClevesMark—the authority of the ruler was limited by the estates, medieval assemblies representing the landed nobles and the townspeople. He battled the estates for supremacy and won, thereby delaying for two centuries the introduction of representative government into the Hohenzollern realm. He gradually gathered into his own hands the crucial power of levying taxes.
Like Louis XIV, the Great Elector reduced the independence of the aristocracy; unlike Louis, however, he relied not on bourgeois officials but on a working alliance with the landed gentry, particularly the Junkers of East Prussia. He confirmed the Junkers’ absolute authority over the serfs on their estates and their ascendancy over the towns, and he encouraged them to serve the state, especially as army officers. In contrast with other monarchies, the absolutism of the Hohenzollerns rested on the cooperation of the sovereign and the aristocracy, not on their mutual antagonism.
The Great Elector’s son, Frederick I (r. 1688-1713), assumed the title “King of Prussia” and insisted on international recognition of his new status as the price for his entry into the War of the Spanish Succession. The next king, Frederick William I (r. 1713-1740), devoted himself entirely to economy, absolutism, and the army. His frugality enabled him to undertake occasional projects that he thought worthwhile, such as financing the immigration of twelve thousand south German Protestants to open up new farmlands in eastern Prussia.
To strengthen royal control over the apparatus of state, Frederick William I instituted a small board of experts charged both to administer departments of the central government and to supervise provinces. The arrangement detached provincial administration from local interest and brought it under closer royal control.
Frederick William I doubled the size of the standing army and established state factories to provide guns and uniforms. To conserve the strength of the laboring force in his underpopulated state, he furloughed troops to work on the farms nine months a year. He was too cautious to undertake an adventurous foreign policy; his only significant military campaign was against Sweden in the last phase of the Great Northern War, whereby Prussia obtained in 1720 part of Swedish Pomerania and also the important Baltic port of Stettin at the mouth of the Oder River.
Eighteenth-century observers rightly called the Prussia of Frederick William an armed camp. The king neglected the education of his subjects, showed little concern for the arts, and carried miserliness to the extreme of refusing pensions to soldiers’ widows. Yet in terms of power, his regime worked extremely well. The Junkers were intensely loyal to the Hohenzollerns and made excellent officers. The army, though smaller than those of France, Russia, or Austria, was the best drilled and disciplined in Europe.