The test of state power that really mattered was its ability to sustain a standing army. Prussia not only had a big one, it came to be synonymous with militarism. In the eighteenth century, however, this status was of recent origin. In 1610, when the Elector Johann Sigismund instructed his militia to conduct training exercises, the timorous soldiers declined on the ground that firing their guns might frighten their women. Alas, this pleasing sense of priorities did not serve Brandenburg well when the Thirty Years’ War erupted eight years later. For a state stretched out across the North German Plain with no natural frontiers, security could only come from a strong army. The attempt by the Elector Georg Wilhelm (r. 1619–40) to stay out of the conflict ended in disaster. In 1630 he sent an emissary to his brother-in-law, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who had just landed in Pomerania, asking him to respect Brandenburg’s neutrality. Gustavus Adolphus replied tartly that in an existential struggle between good and evil (Protestant and Catholic), noncommitment was not an option. Georg Wilhelm’s great-great-grandson, Frederick, provided a withering account of this episode in his Memoirs of the House of Brandenburg, as he described how the Elector’s ministers bleated pathetically, “What can we do? They’ve got all the big guns” as they counseled surrender to the Swedes. During the last two decades of the war, Brandenburg was repeatedly fought over by the various combatants, losing between 40 and 50 percent of its entire population.
Georg Wilhelm’s son, Frederick William, who succeeded him in 1640 at the age of twenty, had learned the lesson that it was better to be predator than prey. Later in his reign he observed to his chief minister Otto von Schwerin: “I have experienced neutrality before; even under the most favorable conditions, you are treated badly. I have vowed never to be neutral again as long as I live.” By 1646 he had managed to scrape together an army of 8,000, which allowed him some sort of scope for independent action in the dog days of the Thirty Years’ War. His reward came in the final peace settlement. Although bitterly disappointed not to make good his claim to western Pomerania and the all-important mouth of the Oder, he did secure the impoverished eastern part, together with three secularized prince-bishoprics (Kammin, Halberstadt and Minden) and the reversion of the wealthy and strategically important archbishopric of Magdeburg, of which he eventually took possession in 1680. Frederick William was now in a self-sustaining spiral: the more troops he had at his disposal, the more easily he could extract money from the Estates, and the more money he was able to extract, the more troops he was able to recruit. He was assisted by the decision of the Holy Roman Empire in 1654 that princes could raise taxes to maintain essential garrisons and fortifications. By the time he died in 1688 he had a standing army of 31,000 at his disposal.
It was also more securely under his command. Until late in his reign he had been obliged to rely on private warlords to supply him with troops. In 1672 General Georg von Derfflinger, who had been born in Austria and had served in several different armies, including the Swedish, declined an order from the Elector because his contract had not specified unconditional obedience. Three years later, on 18 June 1675, Derfflinger was second-in-command to Frederick William at the battle of Fehrbellin, the first major victory won by a Brandenburg army solely through its own efforts. Although the numbers involved on each side were modest—12,000 to 15,000—its significance was recognized by contemporaries when they awarded Frederick William the sobriquet “The Great Elector.” His great-grandson observed: “He was praised by his enemies, blessed by his subjects; and posterity dates from that famous day the subsequent elevation of the house of Brandenburg.”
Although during the next three years the Great Elector’s army pushed the Swedes out of Germany, it brought him scant reward when peace was made. Real power rested in the hands of the big battalions, and they were commanded by the French King Louis XIV, who intervened at the negotiating table to rescue his Swedish allies. All that Frederick William had to show for five years of successful campaigning was a modest frontier adjustment and the cession by the Swedes of their right to a share in the tolls of the Brandenburg part of Pomerania. All the conquered territory had to be handed back. On a medal struck to mark the peace, the disappointed Great Elector had inscribed Dido’s lines from Virgil’s Aeneid addressed to the as-yet-unborn-Hannibal—exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor (May you arise from my bones, you unknown avenger). Rather oddly, Frederick the Great, who was to play Hannibal to Frederick William’s Dido, did not mention this in his account of the episode.
For all the importance assigned to the Great Elector by his successors, Brandenburg was still only a second- or third-rate power when he died in 1688. It was only towards the very end that he managed to assert sole control of his army and he was still dependent on foreign subsidies to wage war. His observation that “alliances are good but one’s own forces are better” referred to an aspiration not an achievement. The same could be said of his son Frederick III (who dropped two digits to become Frederick I when he gained the royal title of “King in Prussia” in 1701). It used to be thought that the Hohenzollern rulers of Brandenburg-Prussia could be divided into two types—the exceptionally gifted, and the dim and/or unstable. It was Frederick III/I’s misfortune to be sandwiched between two high-achievers (Frederick William the Great Elector and Frederick William I) and also to become the target of some of his grandson Frederick the Great’s most scathing comments. Yet he steered his state safely through the very choppy waters stirred up by the Nine Years’ War (1688–97), the Great Northern War (1700–1721) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14). On occasion his army intervened effectively, not least at the battle of Blenheim in 1704, where it played an important role in helping the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene win a crushing victory over the French. By 1709 Frederick had increased his army to 44,000, the largest in the Holy Roman Empire after Austria’s.
In that year it was also present in strength at the battle of Malplaquet when Marlborough and Eugene again defeated the French in the bloodiest engagement of the War of the Spanish Succession. Leading the Prussian contingent were two men who were to make a decisive contribution to Prussia’s military elevation: the Crown Prince Frederick William and General Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau. Despite, or perhaps because of, the carnage, which inflicted 25 percent casualties on the victors, the former always maintained that the day of the battle—11 September 1709—had been the happiest of his life and he always celebrated the anniversary. When he succeeded to the throne in 1713, he and Prince Leopold at once set about increasing the quantity and improving the quality of the army. By a combination of ferocious discipline and incessant drilling, it was turned into a responsive killing machine that could move rapidly across country and then deploy on the battlefield with unprecedented speed. Their innovations included: a metal ramrod, which allowed more rapid rates of fire; an improved bayonet, which was constantly at the ready; and quick-marching in step. In his History of My Own Times, the main beneficiary of these reforms commented on his father’s achievement: “A Prussian battalion became a walking battery whose speed in reloading tripled its firepower and so gave the Prussians an advantage of three to one.” Their grasp of cavalry was much less sure. Frederick William’s notorious obsession with very large soldiers meant that very large—and slow—horses had to be found for them: “giants on elephants” was his son’s dismissive comment. This was based on firsthand experience, for when Frederick first took them to war in 1740, the Austrian cavalry found it all too easy to immobilize their opponents’ gigantic but ponderous horses with one saber slash to the head. Also of dubious military value was Frederick William’s obsession with recruiting giant soldiers for his Guards, which cost four times as much as any other regiment but never saw action.
Overall the quality may have been impressive; the width was much less so. When he came to the throne in 1713, Frederick William could recruit from a total population of only around 1.6 million. At once he abolished the notoriously inefficient militia system and resorted to a mixture of impressment at home and voluntary enlistment from abroad. The unpopularity of the former and the expense of the latter led to a major reform in 1733 by which the Prussian lands were divided into cantons of some 5,000 households, each assigned to a regiment for recruiting. All male children were inscribed on the regimental rolls at the age of ten. Although it was stated firmly that “all inhabitants are born into the service of the country,” numerous groups were exempted: peasant farmers and their eldest sons, immigrants, merchants, manufacturers, craftsmen and those in certain “reserved occupations” such as seafaring. Even so, a good quarter of the total population was inscribed on the cantonal lists and two-thirds of the army could be raised from native resources.
Combined with the relative efficiency of the fiscal and administrative system, this cantonal organization worked well enough to promote Prussia to something approaching the premier league of European military powers. In 1713 the peacetime strength of around 30,000 put the country on a par with Piedmont or Saxony; by 1740 the equivalent figure was 80,000, which outstripped Spain, the Dutch Republic or Sweden and brought it within striking distance of Austria. Frederick the Great commented in his Political Testament of 1768: “These cantons are the pure substance of the state.” Flattering sincerely by imitation, the Austrians followed their enemies’ example, albeit with a long delay, and introduced cantonal recruiting in 1777.