History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

The Rise of Prussia

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See the Related Post: The Rise of the General Staff


See the Related Post: Development of the modern Prussian Army


Our header is a clipping from a photograph of the Battle of Königgrätz (or Sadowa) 1866 and shows the attack of Infantry Regiment No. 68


Napoleon’s armies had severely defeated the Prussians at Jena and Auerstaedt in 1807 and subsequently occupied most of the country, that is, those portions which Napoleon had not confiscated and given away to his brother Jerome, whom he had made King of Westphalia, or to the newly established Grand-Duchy of Poland.

Yet occasionally, a loss may turn an into an unexpected gain. It was precisely in the years of her humiliation, after the defeat of her proud army, that Prussia initiated the reforms which were to result in making her a modern state which in some respects led the world.

Prussia 1807 – 1871

Many things that are nowadays, for better or worse, associated with the workings of a modern state were first – in a consistent manner – introduced in Prussia in the early years of the nineteenth century: communal self-government, freedom of trade and contracts, the income tax, compulsive education and, last not least, military service by conscription.

The feudal system had limited the nation’s entrepreneurial activities along social borderlines: to buy or sell land was the prerogative of the nobility, but to become a merchant or artisan, one had to be a commoner. These limitations fell, and with the eventual abolition of serfdom, the world’s first labour market was created; a necessary condition for Germany’s extremely rapid industrialization.

The economy of feudal Prussia depended on serfs working the extensive farms of the “Junkers”, the local barons. They ruled with a heavy hand, essentially independent of governmental supervision. On their possessions, they were employer, policeman and judge in one. They had the right to inflict corporeal punishment, could grant, or forbid, marriages; in some cases, while technically illegal, complete sharecropper families were bought and sold, in particular at the fringes of the country where the eye of the law was short-sighted.

A feudal right the Junkers were loath to give up was the ius primae noctis or droit de seigneur; the right of the lord to claim the sexual favours of a vassal’s bride on her wedding night. Whether this right truly existed or was a rather morbid fantasy is debated, but at least in Beaumarchais’ play “The Marriage of Figaro” it became a potent propaganda weapon against the excesses of the nobility. Under the impression of the French Revolution, demands for the abolishment of the old customs surfaced in Prussia as well.

The sober, Lutheran Prussian kings had early proven more interest in the affairs of their citizens than was the norm. In 1732 Friedrich Wilhelm I took in a community of Lutherans from Salzburg, Austria, whence they had been displaced.

Friedrich Wilhelm I receives the Lutherans from Salzburg at the Leipziger Gate in 1732, painting by Constantin Kretius
Friedrich Wilhelm I receives the Lutherans from Salzburg at the Leipziger Gate in 1732, painting by Constantin Kretius

Frederick the Great was especially known for taking interest in the daily life of his wards and was spotted all over the country on inspection tours on things as mundane as the growing of potatoes to improve the food supply.

Frederick the Great inspecting potato fields - Robert Warthmüller, 1866
Frederick the Great inspecting potato fields – Robert Warthmüller, 1866

Although the calls for political reform were based, as in France, on the theories of Rousseau, Locke and John Stuart Mill, there was another important theory for the framers of the new Prussian state: Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776), which described a possible new economic model for the country. Smith’s paradigm was based upon, first, the private right to property, second, the principle of competition, the “free market”, and third, the abolition of trade obstacles like customs, excises or levies.

These basic tenets of Capitalism happened to coincide with the most important invention of the modern age, the partnership of coal and the steam engine, which absolved man from a plethora of manual labours. Industrialization began in the English midlands in the eighteenth century but it took decades for Prussia and the other German states to catch up.

Five distinguished names are eternally united with the Prussian reforms: on the – less important – military side the generals Gerhard von Scharnhorst and August von Gneisenau; on the civil side of the government the Barons von Stein and von Hardenberg; yet none of whom would have effected much without the reforms of Wilhelm von Humboldt, brother of the famous geographer and botanist Alexander von Humboldt.

Wilhelm von Humboldt
Wilhelm von Humboldt

Any serious reform of the land, so much was clear to reformers and hesitaters alike, had to begin with and centre on the situation of the peasantry. They formed the basis of the population, of agriculture, and of the military, and to improve their lot should have positive repercussions on the rest of the nation.

The first issue the reformers attacked was the social integration of all “Prussians”, for there was a problem. The concept of being a “Prussian” did not come easy to many inhabitants, for the simple reason that they only had recently become Prussians; only a generation or so earlier they had been Brandenburgers, Silesians or Pomeranians, collected as spoils of war.

In the fall of 1807, Minister von Stein convinced King Friedrich Wilhelm IV that agrarian development was the key to progress and received the royal sanction to enact a Reform Act. On October 9, 1807, serfdom was outlawed in the kingdom of Prussia, peasants freed from feudal obligations, tithes were abolished, and sharecropping verboten. About half of the peasantry was freed immediately, and the rest had to wait until St. Michael’s Day, November 11, 1810.

Anybody could now, at least in theory, own land, or move, or marry, without permission. As one would suspect, the nobility was not exactly pleased with the reform package and resisted fiercely. They had been used to enjoy the unpaid labours delivered by their “subjects”, and now complained that they were entitled to compensation for the loss of it. They organized themselves in leagues and clubs and, for a time, succeeded in watering down essential provisions of the law.

On account of their resistance, it was to take another generation before the changes achieved full effectiveness. Yet a beginning had been made, and food production rose 40% within ten years. Other reforms proved just as decisive.

Gerhard von Scharnhorst was promoted in July 1807 to become the head of the Military Reform Commission, and he developed a few ideas his fellow noblemen could only call “radical”. As it were, only aristocrats had been able to secure officer’s commissions: this tradition was buried without ceremony, as was the custom that promotion depended on the officer’s favours with the ladies-in-­waiting or the king’s game wardens: now advancement would be based upon performance, shocked old-timers learned.

The gauntlet was abolished, as was hazing, and in the future, so Scharnhorst’s plan, military service would be compulsory. Now that was a brick the king was not willing to swallow yet, and Scharnhorst was fired in 1810. The most crucial reform, however, had already been passed: Wilhelm von Humboldt created the Prussian educational system, the first one to compass a whole nation. He introduced compulsory schooling and guaranteed the building and maintenance of schools and the employment of secular teachers in every nook and cranny of the land.

But not only were primary schools established, but Humboldt also invented the German Gymnasium, a feeder school for colleges and universities. The curriculum was prescribed by law, and schools unwilling or unable to keep up with requirements, as some religious schools did, were closed. Personally, Humboldt also founded the Berlin University that still bears his name.

It is hard to imagine today, but even the simple proviso that a school year starts only once a year had not been considered a necessity until Humboldt ordered it. From now on, school began in September, and all over the world children still obey the regulation of the venerable Prussian scholar. Reform also assailed the ancient privileges of the universities: not only did Humboldt manage to liberate enough funds from the frugal king to run the university, where the teaching staff soon was to comprise names as august as Hegel and Fichte, he also invented the symbiosis of academic teaching and research: professors were required to provide both.

Baron von Stein’s most important innovation regarding the practical aspects of governance was the invention of the minister with portfolio; it sounds like a simple idea yet was unknown. Since the dawn of time, decision-makers had relied on the assistance of advisors, but seldom had the hired help been systematically organized; the gentlemen might work against each other or ignore each other, and most governments thus depended on a sort of chaos theory.

Stein replaced chaos with a pyramid of power and responsibility: the king as the head of government could rely on a cabinet of ministers with specialized portfolios below him, who, in their turn, could rely on a staff of higher officials that would not change with every new incoming minister and could provide continuity. Thus, the (hopefully) knowledgeable ministerial secretary was born, who could serve successive administrations. This system was replicated in every nation.”


Related Post: The Rise of the General Staff


Related Post: Development of the modern Prussian Army


(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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2 Comments

  1. Phillip Nagle

    If you were wondering why the name Prussia was attached to this kingdom that was basically that of the Elector of Brandenburg, the answer is rather simple. The area originally known as Prussia, which had been conquered by the Elector of Brandenburg, was outside the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire and as a reward for his support of the Emperor, the Elector was allowed to have the title of King in Prussia. Eventually, the Electors referred to themselves as King of Prussia both within the Empire and outside. So the Kingdom of Prussia, including all the holdings of Brandenburg was born, a kingdom where the real Prussia was only a minor province.

  2. Very correct, Philip! It was always “King in Prussia”, not “King of Prussia” …

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