Prussia (Preussen)

Prussia was the name used for the region on the southeast coast of the Baltic Sea that the Hohenzollern dynasty organized into a hereditary duchy under Polish suzerainty in 1525.  When it became a kingdom, with its capital at Berlin, in 1701, its territories stretched from the Rhine to the Nieman River.  Prussia was the state around which modern Germany was unified in 1871.   After World War I, Prussia continued to exist as the largest Land (state) within the Weimar Republic and Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.  After World War II it was dissolved by decree of the Allied Control Council in 1947.

The original Prussians were pagan peoples who resisted outside control until the mid-13th century, when they were conquered by the Teutonic Knights.  Two centuries later the knights succumbed to the growing power of Poland-Lithuania.  Under terms of the second Peace of Torun (1466), they ceded their territories west of the Vistula River to the Poles; their eastern possessions became a fief of the Polish crown.  In 1511 the knights elected as their grand master Margrave Albert of Ansbach from the Franconian line of the house of Hohenzollern.  He introduced Lutheranism into his domains, dissolved the Teutonic Order, and was recognized by Poland as the first duke of Prussia.

In 1611, Ducal Prussia passed to the Hohenzollern elector of Brandenburg, John Sigismund.  His grandson, Frederick William, known as the Great Elector, gained complete sovereignty over Ducal Prussia in 1660 and laid the foundations of a standing professional army and centralized bureaucracy, thus turning Brandenburg-Prussia into an ascendant European power.

The status of Prussia and its ruling dynasty rose rapidly during the 18th century. In 1701, Frederick William's son secured the title King in Prussia from Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, in exchange for Hohenzollern support in the War of the Spanish Succession.  He ruled as Frederick I.  Soon all of the Hohenzollern provinces were collectively called the Kingdom of Prussia.  By building a strong army of 80,000 men and creating a tightly knit administrative system to sustain his troops, Frederick William I (r. 1713-40) gave to the Prussian state a militaristic and bureaucratic character that it never lost.  He also acquired Swedish Pomerania, with the port city of Stettin, in 1720.  Prussia's most celebrated ruler was Frederick II, known as Frederick the Great (r. 1740-86).  He made Prussia a dominant European power when he wrested Silesia from the Austrians in 1740.  By obtaining West Prussia in the first partition of Poland he at last linked Brandenburg and East Prussia.

Frederick the Great's nephew and successor, Frederick William II (r. 1786-97), added the old family lands of Ansbach and Bayreuth to his kingdom in addition to extensive territories in the east through the second and third partitions of Poland (1793 and 1795).  Prussia did not fare well in the era of the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars.  Compelled to surrender its provinces west of the Rhine in 1795, Prussia remained out of the wars until 1806, when it was badly beaten at the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt.  By the Treaties of Tilsit (1807), Napoleon stripped away nearly half of Prussia's territory.  Subsequent political and military reforms allowed Prussia to play a prominent role in the campaigns liberating Germany from French occupation.  As compensation, the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) awarded Prussia Posen, Swedish Pomerania, parts of Saxony, Westphalia, and the Rhineland.

During the first half of the 19th century Prussia vied with Austria for prestige and influence in the German Confederation, with Prussia emerging victorious in the 1860s.  Otto von Bismarck, who became chief minister in 1862, provoked and won wars with Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-71), completing the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership.  On Jan. 18, 1871, King William I of Prussia was proclaimed German emperor (or kaiser).  Although Prussia was now a federal state within the new empire, it comprised two-thirds of the population and land area and dominated German policy until the end of World War I.

The last Prussian monarch, German Emperor William II, was forced to abdicate (1918) after the German defeat in World War I.  Prussia was incorporated into the Weimar Republic, retaining its disproportionate size but without an overriding influence in political affairs.  What remained of Prussian autonomy disappeared on Jan. 30, 1934, when Hitler eliminated the governments of the various German states.  Thereafter, Prussia functioned as an administrative unit until the collapse of the Nazi regime in 1945.

Baranowski, Shelley, The Sanctity of Rural Life: Nobility, Protestantism, and Nazism in Weimar Prussia (1995);
Barker, Thomas, ed., Frederick the Great and the Making of Prussia (1976);
Carsten, Francis, The Origins of Prussia (1954; repr. 1982);
Craig, Gordon, The Politics of the Prussian Army, 1640 to 1945 (1955; repr. 1964) and The End of Prussia (1984);
Fay, Sidney, and Epstein, Klaus, The Rise of Brandenburg-Prussia to 1786, rev. ed. (1981);
Gawthorp, Richard, Pietism and the Making of 18th-Century Prussia (1993);
Koch, H. W., A History of Prussia (1978; repr. 1987);
Ludtke, Alf, Police and State in 19th-Century Prussia (1990);
Mitchell, Otis, A Concise History of Brandenburg-Prussia to 1786 (1980);
Sheman, Margaret, The Rise of Brandenburg-Prussia (1995).