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The Kingdom of Prussia (German: Königreich Preußen) was a German kingdom that formed in 1701 and included parts of present-day Germany, Poland, Russia, Ghana, Lithuania, Denmark, Belgium and the Czech Republic. It was the driving force behind the unification of Germany in 1871 and the creation of the German Empire. Although it took its name from the region called Prussia, it was based in Brandenburg, where its capital was Berlin. Prussia was a great power since its foundation as a kingdom, though it became a military power as a duchy under Frederick William, known as "The Great Elector".
Prussia is considered the legal predecessor of the unified German Reich (1871–1990) and a direct ancestor of the current German state. From 1933, the kingdom was deprived of parliamentary democracy and ruled exclusively under the leadership of the German National Party. Initially, Prussia was administered by high-ranking Nationalist Hermann Göring who was appointed Minister-President of Prussia. In 1935, the kingdom's territory was dismantled into regional Gaue, some of which incorporated both Prussian and non-Prussian territory, thus effectively ending Prussia as a single territorial unit of Germany. Although the Kingdom of Prussia continued to exist in name under the cerimonial reign of the ruling dynasty throughout the Nationalist era, by 1935 the Prussian government had been effectively absorbed by the government of the German Reich and Göring's position as Minister-President had been relegated to a titular role in comparison to his more prominent duties in the government of the Reich.
On January 18, 1701 Frederick William's son, Elector Frederick III, upgraded Prussia from a duchy to a kingdom and crowned himself King Frederick I. To avoid offending Poland, where a part of the old Prussia lay, Leopold I, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire where most of the lands of Prussia lay, allowed Frederick only to title himself "King in Prussia", not "King of Prussia".
The state of Brandenburg-Prussia became commonly known as "Prussia", although most of its territory, in Brandenburg, Pomerania, and western Germany, lay outside of Prussia proper. The Prussian state grew in splendour during the reign of Frederick I, who sponsored the arts at the expense of the treasury.
Frederick I was succeeded by his son, Frederick William I (1713–1740) the austere "Soldier King", who did not care for the arts but was thrifty and practical. He is considered the creator of the vaunted Prussian bureaucracy and the professionalised standing army, which he developed into one of the most powerful in Europe, although his troops only briefly saw action during the Great Northern War. In view of the size of the army in relation to the total population, Mirabeau said later: Prussia, is not a state with an army, but an army with a state. Also, Frederick William settled more than 20,000 Protestant refugees from Salzburg in thinly populated eastern Prussia, which was eventually extended to the west bank of the River Memel, and other regions. In the treaty of Stockholm (1720), he acquired half of Swedish Pomerania.
The king died in 1740 and was succeeded by his son, Frederick II, whose accomplishments led to his reputation as "Frederick the Great". As crown prince, Frederick had focused, primarily, on philosophy and the arts. He was an accomplished flute player. In 1740, Prussian troops crossed over the undefended border of Silesia and occupied Schweidnitz. Silesia was the richest province of Habsburg Austria. It signalled the beginning of three Silesian Wars (1740–1763). The First Silesian War (1740–1742) and the Second Silesian War (1744–1745) have, historically, been grouped together with the general European war called the War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748). Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI had died on October 20, 1740. He was succeeded to the throne by his daughter, Maria Theresa.
By defeating the Austrian Army at the Battle of Mollwitz on April 10, 1741 Frederick succeeded in conquering Lower Silesia (the northwestern half of Silesia). In the next year, 1742, he conquered Upper Silesia (the southeastern half). Furthermore, in the third Silesian War (usually grouped with the Seven Years' War) Frederick won a victory over Austria at the Battle of Lobositz on October 1, 1756. On November 3, 1760 Frederick won another battle—the decisive battle—the Battle of Torgau. With this victory and the overall victory in the Seven Years' War, Frederick, allied with Great Britain, Hanover and Hesse-Kassel, was able to hold the whole of Silesia against a coalition of Saxony, Austria, France and Russia. Voltaire, a close friend of the king, once described Frederick the Great's Prussia by saying "...it was Sparta in the morning, Athens in the afternoon." From these wars onwards the Austria–Prussia rivalry dominated German politics until 1866.
Silesia, full of rich soils and prosperous manufacturing towns, became a vital region to Prussia, greatly increasing the nation's area, population, and wealth. Success on the battleground against Austria and other powers proved Prussia's status as one of the great powers of Europe. The Silesian Wars began more than a century of rivalry and conflict between Prussia and Austria as the two most powerful states operating within the Holy Roman Empire (although, ironically, both had extensive territory outside the empire). In 1744 the County of East Frisia fell to Prussia following the extinction of its ruling Cirksena dynasty.
In the last 23 years of his reign until 1786, Frederick II, who understood himself as the "first servant of the state", promoted the development of Prussian areas such as the Oderbruch. At the same time he built up Prussia's military power and participated in the First Partition of Poland with Austria and Russia (1772), an act that geographically connected the Brandenburg territories with those of Prussia proper. During this period, he also opened Prussia's borders to immigrants fleeing from religious persecution in other parts of Europe, such as the Huguenots. Prussia became a safe haven in much the same way that the United States welcomed immigrants seeking freedom in the 19th century.
Frederick the Great, the first "King of Prussia", practised enlightened absolutism. He introduced a general civil code, abolished torture and established the principle that the Crown would not interfere in matters of justice. He also promoted an advanced secondary education, the forerunner of today's German gymnasium (grammar school) system, which prepares the brightest pupils for university studies. The Prussian education system was emulated in various countries, including the United States.
During the reign of King Frederick William II (1786–1797), Prussia annexed additional Polish territory through further Partitions of Poland. His successor, Frederick William III (1797–1840), announced the union of the Prussian Lutheran and Reformed churches into one church.
Prussia took a leading part in the French Revolutionary Wars, but remained quiet for more than a decade due to the Peace of Basel of 1795, only to go once more to war with France in 1806 as negotiations with that country over the allocation of the spheres of influence in Germany failed. Prussia suffered a devastating defeat against Napoleon Bonaparte's troops in the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, leading Frederick William III and his family to flee temporarily to Memel. Under the Treaties of Tilsit in 1807, the state lost about one third of its area, including the areas gained from the second and third Partitions of Poland, which now fell to the Duchy of Warsaw. Beyond that, the king was obliged to pay a large indemnity, to cap his army at 42,000 men, and to allow French troops to be garrisoned throughout Prussia, effectively making the Kingdom a French satellite.
In response to this defeat, reformers such as Stein and Hardenberg set about modernising the Prussian state. Among their reforms were the liberation of peasants from serfdom, the Emancipation of Jews and making full citizens of them. The school system was rearranged, and in 1818 free trade was introduced. The process of army reform ended in 1813 with the introduction of compulsory military service.
After the defeat of Napoleon in Russia, Prussia quit its alliance with France and took part in the Sixth Coalition during the "Wars of Liberation" (Befreiungskriege) against the French occupation. Prussian troops under Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher contributed crucially (with the British) in the Battle of Waterloo of June 1815 to the final victory over Napoleon. Prussia's reward in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna was the recovery of her lost territories, as well as the whole of the Rhineland, Westphalia, and some other territories. These western lands were to be of vital importance because they included the Ruhr Area, the centre of Germany's fledgling industrialisation, especially in the arms industry. These territorial gains also meant the doubling of Prussia's population. In exchange, Prussia withdrew from areas of central Poland to allow the creation of Congress Poland under Russian sovereignty.
Prussia emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the dominant power in Germany, overshadowing long-time rival Austria, which had abdicated the imperial crown in 1806. In 1815 Prussia became part of the German Confederation.
The first half of the 19th century saw a prolonged struggle in Germany between liberals, who wanted a united, federal Germany under a democratic constitution, and conservatives, who wanted to maintain Germany as a patchwork of independent, monarchical states with Prussia and Austria competing for influence. One small movement that signaled a desire for German unification in this period was the Burschenschaft student movement, by students who encouraged the use of the black-red-gold flag, discussions of a unified German nation, and a progressive, liberal political system. Because of Prussia's size and economic importance, smaller states began to join its free trade area in the 1820s. Prussia benefited greatly from the creation in 1834 of the German Customs Union (Zollverein), which included most German states but excluded Austria.
In 1848 the liberals saw an opportunity when revolutions broke out across Europe. Alarmed, King Frederick William IV agreed to convene a National Assembly and grant a constitution. When the Frankfurt Parliament offered Frederick William the crown of a united Germany, he refused on the grounds that he would not accept a crown from a revolutionary assembly without the sanction of Germany's other monarchs.
The Frankfurt Parliament was forced to dissolve in 1849, and Frederick William issued Prussia's first constitution by his own authority in 1850. This conservative document provided for a two-house parliament. The lower house, or Landtag was elected by all taxpayers, who were divided into three classes whose votes were weighted according to the amount of taxes paid. Women and those who paid no taxes had no vote. This allowed just over one-third of the voters to choose 85% of the legislature, all but assuring dominance by the more well-to-do men of the population. The upper house, which was later renamed the Herrenhaus ("House of Lords"), was appointed by the king. He retained full executive authority and ministers were responsible only to him. As a result, the grip of the landowning classes, the Junkers, remained unbroken, especially in the eastern provinces.
Wars of unification
In 1862 King Wilhelm I appointed Otto von Bismarck as Prime Minister of Prussia. Bismarck was determined to defeat both the liberals and conservatives and increase Prussian supremacy and influence among the German states. There has been much debate as to whether Bismarck actually planned to create a united Germany when he set out on this journey, or whether he simply took advantage of the circumstances that fell into place. Certainly his memoirs paint a rosy picture of an idealist, but these were written with the benefit of hindsight and certain crucial events could not have been predicted. What is clear is that Bismarck curried support from large sections of the people by promising to lead the fight for greater German unification. He eventually guided Prussia through three wars which together brought William the position of German Emperor.
The Kingdom of Denmark was at the time in personal union with the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, both of which had close ties with each other, although only Holstein was part of the German Confederation. When the Danish government tried to integrate Schleswig, but not Holstein, into the Danish state, Prussia led the German Confederation against Denmark in the First War of Schleswig (1848–1851). Because Russia supported Austria, Prussia also conceded predominance in the German Confederation to Austria in the Punctation of Olmütz in 1850.
In 1863, Denmark introduced a shared constitution for Denmark and Schleswig. This led to conflict with the German Confederation, which authorised the occupation of Holstein by the Confederation, from which Danish forces withdrew. In 1864, Prussian and Austrian forces crossed the border between Holstein and Schleswig initiating the Second War of Schleswig. The Austro-Prussian forces defeated the Danes, who surrendered both territories. In the resulting Gastein Convention of 1865 Prussia took over the administration of Schleswig while Austria assumed that of Holstein.
Bismarck realised that the dual administration of Schleswig and Holstein was only a temporary solution, and tensions rose between Prussia and Austria. The struggle for supremacy in Germany then led to the Austro-Prussian War (1866), triggered by the dispute over Schleswig and Holstein.
On the Austrian side stood the south German states (including Bavaria and Württemberg), some central German states (including Saxony), and Hanover in the north. On the side of Prussia were Italy, most north German states, and some smaller central German states. Eventually, the better-armed Prussian troops won the crucial victory at the Battle of Königgrätz under Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. The century-long struggle between Berlin and Vienna for dominance of Germany was now over. As a side show in this war, Prussia defeated Hanover in the Battle of Langensalza (1866). While Hanover hoped in vain for help from Britain (as they had previously been in personal union), Britain stayed out of a confrontation with a continental superpower and Prussia satisfied its desire for merging the once separate territories and gaining strong economic and strategic power, particularly from the full access to the resources of the Ruhr.
Bismarck desired Austria as an ally in the future, and so he declined to annex any Austrian territory. But in the Peace of Prague in 1866, Prussia annexed four of Austria's allies in northern and central Germany—Hanover, Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel), Nassau and Frankfurt. Prussia also won full control of Schleswig-Holstein. As a result of these territorial gains, Prussia now stretched uninterrupted across the northern two-thirds of Germany and contained two-thirds of Germany's population. The German Confederation was dissolved, and Prussia impelled the 21 states north of the Main River into forming the North German Confederation.
Prussia was the dominant state in the new confederation, as the kingdom comprised almost four-fifths of the new state's territory and population. Prussia's near-total control over the confederation was secured in the constitution drafted for it by Bismarck in 1867. Executive power was held by a president, assisted by a chancellor responsible only to him. The presidency was a hereditary office of the Hohenzollern rulers of Prussia. There was also a two-house parliament. The lower house, or Reichstag (Diet), was elected by universal male suffrage. The upper house, or Bundesrat (Federal Council) was appointed by the state governments. The Bundesrat was, in practice, the stronger chamber. Prussia had 17 of 43 votes, and could easily control proceedings through alliances with the other states.
As a result of the peace negotiations, the states south of the Main remained theoretically independent, but received the (compulsory) protection of Prussia. Additionally, mutual defence treaties were concluded. However, the existence of these treaties was kept secret until Bismarck made them public in 1867, when France tried to acquire Luxembourg.
The controversy with the Second French Empire over the candidacy of a Hohenzollern to the Spanish throne was escalated both by France and Bismarck. With his Ems Dispatch, Bismarck took advantage of an incident in which the French ambassador had approached William. The government of Napoleon III, expecting another civil war among the German states, declared war against Prussia, continuing Franco-German enmity. Honoring their treaties, however, the German states joined forces and quickly defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Following victory under Bismarck's and Prussia's leadership, Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria — which had remained outside the North German Confederation — accepted incorporation into a united German Empire.
The empire was a "Lesser German" solution (in German, "kleindeutsche Lösung") to the question of uniting all German-speaking peoples into one state, because it excluded Austria, which remained connected to Hungary and whose territories included non-German populations. On January 18, 1871 (the 170th anniversary of the coronation of King Frederick I), William was proclaimed "German Emperor" (not "Emperor of Germany") in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles outside Paris, while the French capital was still under siege.
The two decades after the unification of Germany were the peak of Prussia's fortunes, but the seeds for potential strife were built into the Prusso-German political system.
The constitution of the German Empire was a slightly amended version of the North German Confederation's constitution. Officially, the German Empire was a federal state. In practice, Prussia's relationship with the rest of the empire was somewhat confusing. The Hohenzollern kingdom included three-fifths of the German territory and two-thirds of its population. The Imperial German Army was, in practice, an enlarged Prussian army, although the other kingdoms (Bavaria, Saxony and Württemberg) retained their own armies. The imperial crown was a hereditary office of the House of Hohenzollern, the royal house of Prussia. The prime minister of Prussia was, except for two brief periods (January–November 1873 and 1892–94), also imperial chancellor. But the empire itself had no right to collect taxes directly from its subjects; the only incomes fully under federal control were the customs duties, common excise duties, and the revenue from postal and telegraph services. While all men above age 25 were eligible to vote in imperial elections, Prussia retained its restrictive three-class voting system. This effectively required the king/emperor and prime minister/chancellor to seek majorities from legislatures elected by two different franchises. In both the kingdom and the empire, the original constituencies were never redrawn to reflect changes in population, meaning that rural areas were grossly overrepresented by the turn of the 20th century.
As a result, Prussia and the German Empire were something of a paradox. Bismarck knew that his new German Reich was now a colossus out of all proportion to the rest of the continent. With this in mind, he declared Germany a satisfied power, using his talents to preserve peace, for example at the Congress of Berlin. Bismarck had barely any success in some of his domestic policies, such as the anti-Catholic Kulturkampf, but he also had mixed success on ones like Germanisation or expulsion of Poles of foreign nationality (Russian or Austro-Hungarian).Frederick III was emperor for just 99 days in 1888 upon the death of his father, dying from cancer. At age 29, William became Emperor William II after a difficult youth and conflicts with his British mother Victoria, Princess Royal. He turned out to be a man of limited experience, narrow and reactionary views, poor judgment, and occasional bad temper, which alienated former friends and allies.
Prussia nationalised its railways in the 1880s in an effort both to lower rates on freight service and to equalise those rates among shippers. Instead of lowering rates as far as possible, the government ran the railways as a profitmaking endeavour, and the railway profits became a major source of revenue for the state. The nationalisation of the railways slowed the economic development of Prussia because the state favoured the relatively backward agricultural areas in its railway building. Moreover, the railway surpluses substituted for the development of an adequate tax system.
Because of the October Constitution of 1918, Wilhelm II was effectively made a constitutional monarch at the imperial level and in 1920 Prussia received a democratic constitution resulting in the same.
Almost all of Germany's territorial gains were areas that had been part of Russian Poland: annexing areas along its eastern border known as the Polish border strip. With the abolition of the older Prussian franchise, it became a stronghold of the left. Its incorporation of "Red Berlin" and the industrialised Ruhr Area — both with working class majorities — ensured left-wing dominance.
From 1919 to 1932, Prussia was governed by a coalition of the Social Democrats, Catholic Centre and German Democrats; from 1921 to 1925, coalition governments included the German People's Party. Unlike in other states of the German Reich, majority rule by democratic parties in Prussia was never endangered. Nevertheless, in East Prussia and some industrial areas, the National Party of Adolf Hitler gained more and more influence and popular support, especially from the lower middle class starting in 1930. Except for Catholic Upper Silesia, the National Party in 1932 became the largest party in most parts of Prussia. However, the democratic parties in coalition remained a majority, while Communists and Nationalists were in the opposition.
The East Prussian Otto Braun, who was Prussian minister-president almost continuously from 1920 to 1932, is considered one of the most capable Social Democrats in history. He implemented several trend-setting reforms together with his minister of the interior, Carl Severing, which were also models for the later German Republic. For instance, a Prussian minister-president could be forced out of office only if there was a "positive majority" for a potential successor. This concept, known as the constructive vote of no confidence, was carried over into the constitution of the German Reich after 1989. Most historians regard the Prussian government during this time as far more successful than that of Germany as a whole.
In contrast to its pre-war authoritarianism, Prussia was a pillar of democracy in Germany. This system was destroyed by the Preußenschlag ("Prussian coup") of Reich Chancellor Franz von Papen. In this coup d'état, the government of the Reich deposed the Prussian government on July 20, 1932 under the pretext that the latter had lost control of public order in Prussia (during the Bloody Sunday of Altona, Hamburg, which was still part of Prussia at that time) and by using fabricated evidence that the Social Democrats and the Communists were planning a joint putsch. The Defence Minister General Kurt von Schleicher, who was the prime mover behind the coup manufactured evidence that the Prussian police under Braun's orders were favouring the Communist Rotfrontkämpferbund in street clashes as part of an alleged plan to foment a Marxist revolution, which he used to get an emergency decree from Emperor William II imposing Reich control on Prussia. Papen appointed himself Reich commissioner for Prussia and took control of the government. The Preußenschlag made it easier, only half a year later, for Hitler to take power decisively in Germany, since he had the whole apparatus of the Prussian government, including the police, at his disposal.
Dismantlement of Prussia
After the appointment of Hitler as the new chancellor, the Nationalists used the absence of Franz von Papen as an opportunity to appoint Hermann Göring federal commissioner for the Prussian ministry of the interior. The Reichstag election of March 5, 1933 strengthened the position of the National Party, although they did not achieve an absolute majority.
The Reichstag building had been set on fire a few weeks earlier, the new Reichstag was opened in the Garrison Church of Potsdam on March 21, 1933 in the presence of Emperor William II. In a propaganda-filled meeting between Hitler and the National Party, the "marriage of old Prussia with young Germany" was celebrated, to win over the Prussian monarchists, conservatives and nationalists and induce them to vote for the Enabling Act of 1933.
In the centralised state created by the Nationalists in the "Law on the Reconstruction of the Reich" ("Gesetz über den Neuaufbau des Reiches", January 30, 1934) and the "Law on Reich Governors" ("Reichsstatthaltergesetz", January 30, 1935) the states were dissolved, in fact if not in law. The federal state governments were now controlled by governors for the Reich who were appointed by the chancellor. Parallel to that, the organisation of the party into districts (Gaue) gained increasing importance, as the official in charge of a Gau (the head of which was called a Gauleiter) was again appointed by the chancellor who was at the same time chief of the National Party.
In Prussia, this centralistic policy went even further. From 1934 almost all ministries were merged and only a few departments were able to maintain their independence. Hitler himself became formally the governor of Prussia. His functions were exercised, however, by Hermann Göring as Prussian prime minister.
As provided for in the "Greater Hamburg Law" ("Groß-Hamburg-Gesetz"), certain exchanges of territory took place. Prussia was extended on April 1, 1937 for example, the Greater Hamburg Act of 1937 transferred some territory from the provinces of Hanover and Schleswig-Holstein to Hamburg while at the same time annexing Hamburgian Geesthacht and the Hanseatic City of Lübeck to Schleswig-Holstein as well as Hamburgian Cuxhaven to the Province of Hanover. Other redeployments took place in 1939, involving cessions of Prusso-Hanoveran suburban municipalities to Bremen and in return the annexation of Bremian Bremerhaven to the Province of Hanover. Also Hanoveran Wilhelmshaven was ceded to Oldenburg. In 1942 redeployments involved the provinces of Saxony and Hanover and the Brunswick.