Stories from German History - Florence Aston

The Aftermath

The misery and depopulation of Germany caused by the Thirty Years' War are wellnigh incredible. Thousands of villages disappeared altogether. In some places one half of the population had perished, in others one-third. The flourishing city of Augsburg was left with but 16,000 souls out of a population of 80,000. The people who survived were reduced to a state of barbarism by suffering and privation, and Germany was too much exhausted to be in a position to contribute anything to the culture of Europe until the end of the eighteenth century.

After the Peace of Westphalia, in 1648, the Elector of Brandenburg was the most powerful German prince next to the Emperor. As King of Prussia he was destined to create a new European power, a German Empire entirely independent of Austria and the Habsburg dynasty. The old line of Brandenburg electors had long died out, and the electorate had been sold by the Emperor Sigismund to the Hohenzollern family as far back as the time of the Council of Constance, at the beginning of the fifteenth century.

Starting with a small strip of territory, which stretched about one hundred miles east and west of the then little town of Berlin, the country grew until Prussia embraced nearly two-thirds of Germany, for practically every Hohenzollern ruler made some addition to his territory. One Elector of Brandenburg inherited Cleves just before the Thirty Years' War, thus gaining a footing in the Rhine country. Next was acquired the duchy of Prussia, which was separated from Brandenburg by Polish territory. It was originally inhabited by heathen Slays, who were conquered by some crusading knights in the thirteenth century when the Crusades were over. These knights were Gamins belonging to the Teutonic Order, and the country soon filled with German colonists.

In the time of Martin Luther, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, why happened to be a relation of the Elector of Brandenburg, decided to dissolve the Order and took the title of Duke of Prussia, and when his family died out Prussia passed into the hands of the Elector of Brandenburg. In the year 1701 the Elector assumed the title of King of Prussia.

After the Thirty Years' War Prussia gained a strip of territory along the Baltic Sea, but it was reserved for Frederick the Great, who ruled from 1740 to 1786, to raise the country to the position of a European power.

He robbed the defenceless Maria Theresa of Silesia. He promoted the welfare of his subjects materially by draining the swamps, issued a new code of laws, increased the industries and encouraged learning and literature. During the Seven Years' War with Austria and her allies it seemed as if Prussia must disappear from the map altogether, but Frederick was a military genius and was quite capable of facing all the foes who surrounded him, and he emerged triumphant with the addition of the Polish region which had hitherto separated Brandenburg from Prussia.

Poland was a turbulent country, for its kings did not succeed to the throne by hereditary right, but were elected by the nobles, who also had the right of vetoing mss proposed in the diet. The three neighbouring countries of Prussia, Russia and Austria each appropriated a slice of this unsettled kingdom at three different times, 1772, 1798 and 1795. This arrangement is known as the Partition of Poland.

Frederick the Great died just before the wench Revolution, and during that time Germany, and especially Prussia, was in the thick of the fight against France. Prussia, however, was obliged to make peace, ceding her lands on the wench side of the Rhine.

In 1806, after an existence of over a thousand years, the Holy Roman Empire came to an end, and the Emperor Francis resigned his dignity, and assumed the title of Emperor of Austria.

For some years not even a nominal union existed among the German states. Napoleon made himself master of the Austrians at Austerlitz in 1805, and of the Prussians at Jena in 1806, and carved out kingdoms anew, but this tyranny was soon to end.

A strong national feeling was growing up fn Prussia, fostered by the writings of such men as Arndt, Kleist and others. Politicians like Stein and Hardenberg reorganized the system of government, and the King's ministers were henceforth responsible officers of State and not mere servants of the Crown. Distinctions between nobles, burghers and peasants, which had hitherto hindered progress, gradually vanished, and towns were granted rights of self-government. An improved system of education was introduced, in connection with which we should mention the name of Wilhelm von Humboldt

Since Prussia was without natural boundaries, compulsory military service was instituted. She then felt herself capable of joining Austria and other German states who fell upon Napoleon after his retreat from Moscow in 1818, won the battle of Leipzig on the 19th of October of that year, invaded France, and co-operated with the British at the battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Thirty-nine states then formed an alliance, of which Prussia and Austria were the chief, and were governed for a short time by a Confederal Diet, to which all the states sent delegates. The battle of Waterloo was followed by a period of disorder and discontent in Germany as in England. The Prussians were patriotic and ambitious, and anxious to develop their national resources. A desire for unity grew with their desire for popular government and trade facilities. So the full flood of modern ideas rose and swelled like a great river, breaking its way through a mass of ancient restrictions, until unity was achieved and old barriers broken down.

By 1866 the Germans had so far advanced that a united Germany was possible, and five years later the then King of Prussia was crowned German Emperor in the Palace of Versailles.