Frederick William I, the eccentric King who collected a private army of Giants.
Prussia was also poorly endowed with economic resources. With the exception of the Westphalian territories – Cleves, Mark and Ravensberg – with their mixed and relatively prosperous agrarian economies and higher level of urbanization, the Hohenzollern lands were poor and backward, and contained little rural industry. Mostly subsistence agriculture, with small surpluses, prevailed throughout the central provinces of Brandenburg and Pomerania. Contemporaries styled Brandenburg `the sandbox of the Holy Roman Empire’, so wretched was its soil. The Kingdom of East Prussia, separated until 1772 from the Hohenzollern heartlands by several hundred miles of Polish territory, was little – if any – better, with equally poor soil and an inhospitable climate. Its commercial economy also provided an unpromising basis for great-power status. Grain and grain-based products were exported from East Prussia and, to a lesser extent, from the monarchy’s heartlands. But commercial activity was at a low ebb, and largely driven by the demands of the Prussian state, while poor internal communications meant that its territories were bypassed by the major continental trade routes. The urban sector was similarly underdeveloped, at least by western European and even western German standards.
The very list of the widely scattered territories ruled by the Hohenzollerns in 1740 highlights another major obstacle to Prussia’s political rise. Her possessions were exposed and scattered across half the continent: from enclaves in Westphalia through the heartlands of Brandenburg, Pomerania and Magdeburg in central Germany, astride the rivers Elbe and Oder, to distant East Prussia. The resulting problems of self-defence, in the face of threats from hostile neighbours and during a period when the acquisition of territory was the principal aim of all foreign policy, were considerable: the eastern border of East Prussia lay some 750 miles distant from the westernmost possessions in the Rhineland, a particularly great distance in an era during which communications were slow and unreliable. As Voltaire remarked, Frederick was really `King of the border strips’. All the great powers faced wide-ranging and dispersed political commitments, as a consequence of their territorial extent. W hat made Prussia’s position unique was the very limited resources available to support such wide-ranging involvement.
Territorial dispersal, together with the very limited demographic and economic resources, were always serious obstacles to Prussia ever securely establishing herself as a great power. Yet Frederick also inherited considerable assets when he succeeded his father on 31 May 1740. Foremost among these was an army unusually large for a country of its size and population. Successive Hohenzollern rulers, aware of the vulnerability of their possessions, had built up a large military force for self-defence. Its creation had shaped domestic developments since the Great Elector’s accession in 1640, and during Frederick William Fs reign it ordinarily consumed around 70 per cent of the state’s annual revenue in peacetime. At Frederick’s accession, this force was some 80,000 strong, impressive on the barrack square, but untested in combat. With the exception of some operations in the Rhineland in 1734, during the War of the Polish Succession, it had not fired a shot in anger since the siege of Stralsund in 1715. The last important Hohenzollern victory had been gained as long ago as 1675, when the Great Elector won an unexpected success over the renowned Swedish army at Fehrbellin, though Prussian contingents had fought impressively in the Allied armies during the War of the Spanish Succession.
This powerful army was supported, and to a considerable degree made possible, by a system of conscription, which had taken its final shape in 1733. The famous cantonal system enabled a first-class army to be maintained on the scanty available resources and contributed significantly to Prussia’s political emergence. An officer cadre was provided by the territorial nobility: under Frederick William I, the Junkers had come to dominate the military commands and, to a lesser extent, the civil administration. He also bequeathed to his son a war-chest (Staatsschatz) of eight million thalers in gold coin, wrapped up in sacks and stored in the basement of the royal palace in Berlin. Finally, Frederick inherited an admired and relatively efficient administrative system, the centrepiece of which was the General Directory, set up in 1723. Within the limitations of eighteenth-century government, this was relatively successful in extracting the men, money and agrarian produce needed to support the army and pay the other expenses of the Prussian state.
With the benefit of hindsight, it can be seen that the military and administrative foundations which had been laid by 1740, together with the degree of social integration achieved under Frederick William I, would provide a strong basis for Prussia’s eighteenth-century career as a great power. But these advantages, in the estimation of most contemporaries, were insufficient to overcome the drawbacks, above all Prussia’s territorial vulnerability and her basic poverty in people and economic resources. This was her Achilles’ heel, and it preoccupied Frederick the Great throughout his reign. Eighteenth-century Prussia always lacked the resources required to establish herself securely as a great power. The achievement of her rulers, and especially of Frederick himself, was to make her a first-class state on a material base more appropriate to a country of the second or even third order. Even by the king’s death in 1786 and after the important acquisitions of Silesia, East Friesland and West Prussia, the Hohenzollern monarchy remained only the thirteenth-largest European state in terms of population and the tenth in terms of its geographical extent, though its army ranked fourth (or even third) in size.
There was more to the status of a great power, however, than resources: these were only one factor in a complex equation. The eighteenth-century states-system was based upon a considerable degree of reciprocity. If established great powers treated a state as one of their number, then that country ipso facto became a member of Europe’s political elite. It thus resembled a British gentlemen’s club: election by the existing members was a precondition for admission. Prussia became a great power through her startling military and, to a lesser extent, political successes between 1740 and 1763, despite lacking the essential material base. Her eighteenth-century preeminence was thus founded upon sand. It was only after 1815 that the Hohenzollerns gained the resources to support the leading European role to which they aspired and which they would play after the middle of the nineteenth century. The territorial settlement established by the Congress of Vienna enormously enhanced Prussia’s demographic and economic power, and endowed her with a much stronger strategic position, after the loss of most of the eastern provinces gained by the three partitions of Poland-Lithuania during the eighteenth century and their replacement by substantial and wealthy territories in western Germany.
Mid-eighteenth-century Prussia had one additional advantage that proved decisive. This was the personality of her remarkable king, Frederick II (widely known as `the Great’ from the end of the Seven Years’ W ar onwards, if not actually earlier). Political leadership was always important and sometimes decisive within the competitive states-system of eighteenth century Europe, and never more so than where Prussia was concerned. Resources and external recognition were vital in the creation of a great power. But there was another essential quality, which existed at a conceptual and philosophical level. To become a member of Europe’s political elite, a state – or, rather, its ruler and the m onarch’s advisers – had to think and act like a great power.
In Prussia’s case, the crucial moment in this transition was Frederick the Great’s accession at the end of May 1740. His predecessor had accepted Prussia’s secondary political role, pursuing essentially limited objectives – such as the established Hohenzollern dynastic claims to the western German enclaves of Jillich and Berg (which were located next to the dynasty’s Rhineland possession of Cleves). Frederick William I had always operated within a relatively narrow and prescribed political framework and had usually been content to follow the lead of the Emperor, Charles VI. The contrast after his son’s accession was striking and significant. From his earliest days upon the Hohenzollern throne – indeed, from his days as crown prince – Frederick the Great thought and acted like the ruler of a first-class power, and within a quarter-century he had secured this status for Prussia. Believing that the political status quo was not an option and that territorial expansion was essential to overcome Prussian poverty and strategic vulnerability, the young king pursued the expansionist aims which he believed to be the logical conclusion of his father’s impressive domestic achievements. His political vision was far wider than that of his predecessors, encompassing the whole European diplomatic chessboard. This was apparent in an immediate enlargement of Hohenzollern aims – demonstrated in the invasion of Silesia at the very end of 1740, little more than six months after Frederick had ascended the throne – which transcended the purely dynastic and largely German objectives that had driven policy under Frederick William I. Central to this was Frederick’s determination that his state would be politically independent, rather than – as under his own father – subject to outside influences in the conduct of its foreign policy.
Prussia’s eighteenth-century trajectory as a great power is inextricably bound up with the career and reign of Frederick the Great. By his political vision, his military successes and his diplomatic skills, he made his kingdom into a first-class state, while all his life aware that Prussia lacked the resources to sustain this role and that it would prove to be transient. His decisive political leadership was the result of remarkable abilities and an ego to match.
It was facilitated by a silent revolution in Prussian government shortly after Frederick’s accession, which gave the new king complete control of Berlin’s diplomacy. Until 1740, day-to-day responsibility for Prussia’s foreign policy had been exercised by the Kabinettsministerium, under the king’s overall direction. 4 Set up in 1728, and known as the Kabinettsministerium after 1733, it was organized – like all Hohenzollern government – on a collegial basis. It embodied the assumption that two or more advisers should together discuss policy, meet diplomats, correspond with Prussia’s own representatives in other capitals and conduct negotiations, all directly supervised by the king. In the early weeks of Frederick the Great’s reign, these arrangements were altered. Confident in his own abilities and anxious to demonstrate them, and openly contemptuous of those who had served his father, whom he held responsible for Prussia’s political subservience during that reign, Frederick took over complete and direct responsibility for Prussian foreign policy, which he retained until the very end of his life. The experienced officials in the Kabinettsministerium and especially the leading adviser Heinrich von Podewils, found their status and responsibilities downgraded to that of mere secretaries. They were mostly excluded from the formulation of policy, at least towards the major states, and while they continued to hold audiences with foreign diplomats, these became largely formal in nature: their own ignorance of Prussian policy meant that there was nothing to discuss. Policy was instead drawn up and executed by the king himself, who conducted the bulk of correspondence with Prussia’s own diplomats and also negotiated personally with foreign representatives in Berlin. Since – in addition to acting as his own foreign minister – Frederick was also commander-in-chief of the army, there was an unusual degree of coherence and unity in Prussian decision-making, in contrast to the divided counsels which prevailed in the capitals of rival powers. Rapid and incisive decision making was to be one foundation of Prussia’s political rise.