History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

The Rise of the House of Brandenburg

The great House of Hapsburg had been slowly dying out. The Empire had become little more than a name—"neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire," as a witty French writer said of it later. But meantime another state in the Empire had been growing greater and greater, another house had arisen to take the Hapsburg place as first among the princes of the Empire.

This state was Prussia, this house was that of the Hohenzollerns.

You remember in the days of Leopold I, the Elector of Brandenburg had been called the Great Elector. He alone of all the princes of his day stood for what was German. He ruled his own lands well and wisely, and was the founder of the greatness of the house of Hohenzollern. He sheltered the poor Huguenots who fled from the tyranny of Louis of France. Many of them found homes in and round Berlin, and presently the shabby little town became a beautiful city, surrounded with gardens.

At length in 1688, the Great Elector died. His son Frederick, a vain and frivolous man, succeeded him. He was sickly and deformed, yet all the same he was very fond of finery and splendour. He loved to dress up his poor body in gorgeous robes, and surround himself with pomp and ceremony. So the title of Elector did not seem grand enough for him. He wanted to be a King, and he tried to persuade the Emperor to allow him to take the title of King. But the Emperor was not willing to allow another King within the borders of the Empire. He, however, wanted the Elector's friendship, and the help of his stalwart soldiers in his wars, so he at last yielded. But he would not allow the Elector to call himself King of Brandenburg, Brandenburg being part of the Empire. The Elector, however, was also Duke of Prussia, and Prussia, lying outside of the Empire, he was allowed to take the title of King in Prussia. Not of King of Prussia, mark you. But what difference "in" instead of "of" could make, is very hard to understand.

The Elector, you may be sure, cared little for these fine distinctions, he had got what he wanted, and on January 18, 1701, there was a prodigious great ceremony at Konigsberg. And with a grandeur and pomp quite out of keeping with the tiny kingdom, the new King crowned himself.

The King of Great Britain might kneel before an archbishop, the Emperor before the Pope, but the mighty King in Prussia would bow to none. So he placed the crown upon his own head, and then crowned his Queen.

Still bishops had always figured at coronations, and some one must do the anointing. But Brandenburg was Protestant and had no bishops. So the Elector made two for the occasion. "I am told that I have no power to make bishops," he wrote later, "and that the English ones are derived from the Apostles. That is very difficult to prove. Besides it does not matter much whether the English bishops recognise mine or not, for in all their days they will never get as far as England, and here they are acknowledged even by the Catholics." And Frederick was quite content with his toy kingdom and toy bishops.

And now that Frederick was secure in the title for which he had longed and schemed, he kept a splendid court and wasted money right and left in imitation of Louis XIV. "This expensive King," Carlyle calls him.

Yet in spite of his extravagance, Frederick I did a great deal for Prussia. He founded a University, an Academy of Sciences, and an Observatory. He encouraged painting, and sculpture, and architecture. He made Berlin splendid, and the beautiful street Unter den Linden was built and planted in his reign.

In 1713 this "expensive King" died. He was succeeded by his son Frederick William I.

The new King was twenty-five when he came to the throne, and in every way very different from his father. He had a will of his own, and a terrible temper. He was honest and simple, and hated all the French frippery of his father's court. "I am no Frenchman," he said. "I do not want to be a Frenchman. German is good enough for me."

He knew what harm the extravagance and the aping of French manners had done his people, and he was determined to have no more of it. He knew the court was full of swindlers and idle hangers-on, and he was determined to be rid of them. So the very second day of his reign he called for the royal household accounts. He looked at the long list of servants, the grooms of the chamber, the grooms of the kitchen, the pages and the esquires. They were no use, they were there only for show. And he sent them all packing.

A thousand horses were in the royal stable. He sold them all except thirty. Coaches and carriages were sold too, and many other things besides, till in one way and another, the royal household was reduced so much that from costing something like 40,000 a year, it cost only 8000, a sum far less than many a gentleman in England spends to-day.

Never has King lived in plainer style than King Frederick William I of Prussia. Gold embroideries, splendid robes, great French wigs, were all forbidden. The King himself set the fashion, and wore a plain blue uniform, and plain little wig.

All this King Frederick William did because he cared nothing for mere show and grandeur. And he wanted the money to spend on something he did care for. He wanted it to spend on soldiers. And he spent it so well, that soon he had a splendid army.

He loved his soldiers better than anything else. They were his "dear blue children." But his special hobby was great big men, and one regiment called the Potsdam Guard was filled with giants only. Many are the stories told of the ways in which he used to persuade or force men into his giant guard. He had recruiting officers in every country in Europe, seeking for suitable men, and when they could not be persuaded or bribed into his service, they were kidnapped.

Yet with all his splendid army Frederick William did hardly any fighting. Only twice during his reign did Prussian troops take part in a war, only once did he himself lead them to battle.

Frederick William was a thorough tyrant. His word was law, and although he did much for the good of his country, he did it like a tyrant. He ruled without any Parliament other than what he called his "Tobacco Parliament."

This Parliament was held in a room over the dining-room of his palace. It was plainly furnished with wooden table and chairs. Here the King and seven or eight of his chief friends met together after dinner. There was no ceremony, the King being treated just like any common man. But every man admitted to this "Tobacco Parliament" was obliged to smoke. Those who could not smoke had to pretend to. So smoking clay pipes, and drinking great quantities of beer out of china mugs, with metal tops, the King and his cronies sat discussing affairs of state. Never in civilised times, perhaps, has there been a quainter Parliament.

Frederick William loved his "blue children," and often drilled them himself. But woe betide the stupid or the slow, for Frederick William had a temper; he always carried a big stick, and he was not slow to lay it about the shoulders of any who displeased him.

Indeed, the idle and the timid were so afraid of him that they would slink away as soon as the stout little figure, in its tight blue uniform, appeared. One day a poor man seeing the little King with his big stick coming, ran away. But the King, seeing him run, ordered him to be brought back. "Why did you run away?" he asked.

"I was afraid, please your Majesty," answered the trembling wretch.

"And how dare you be afraid?" cried Frederick William, raising his cane. "How dare you be afraid? Do you not know, fool, that I am the father of my people, and that I expect to be loved and not feared?" And again and again the big stick came down on the poor man's shoulders.

Even the King's own family did not escape from his temper and stick. The Crown Prince Frederick especially suffered from it. He was wild and mischievous. He was lazy, untidy, and, like many boys, dirty. He hated lessons, he hated getting up early. He had inherited his grandfather's love of fine clothes, and his carelessness of money. The King was just the opposite in everything. He was spick and span, smart and clean, he wore plain clothes, he got up early, and worked hard from morning till night, he was careful and even miserly over his money. He wanted his son to grow up to be a great King and a soldier. And when he saw him so different from himself in every way, he despaired of it. So poor little Fritz was thrashed unmercifully. He was thrashed because he wore gloves, and ate with a silver spoon and fork, for that was dainty and womanish. He was thrashed because he was slovenly and untidy, for that was piggish.

Frederick was no doubt a naughty boy; but the thrashings did not seem to make him better. His life, indeed, became so miserable that at eighteen he resolved to run away. "A Prince, eighteen years old, cannot endure being treated by his father and beaten as I have been," he said.

But the Prince's plans for escape were discovered, and both he and a young lieutenant named Katte were taken prisoner. This Katte was one of the Prince's great friends, and had been his leader in much mischief and wickedness. Now for his share in this last escapade he was condemned to death. The scaffold on which he was to die was put up outside the window of Frederick's prison, and a messenger was sent to tell the Prince of what was about to happen—to tell him that he must see his friend beheaded before his eyes.

"What terrible words are these you speak to me?" he cried. "Lord Jesus, take rather my own life!" With tears he begged that his friend's life might be spared. But the Prince's prayers were in vain. And when the time for Katte's execution came, two officers led him to the window.

Looking forth, the Prince saw his friend upon the scaffold. He kissed his hand to him and cried out: "Dear Katte, I beg your pardon a thousand times."

"My lord," said Katte gently, as he bowed to the Prince, "do not think of it. I have nothing to forgive." Then he went bravely to his death, and the Prince fell down fainting.

It seemed for a time as if Frederick William in his wrath meant to put his own son to death too. The Prince himself believed that he was soon to follow his unhappy friend. The King, however, allowed his wrath to cool, and instead of beheading his son, he kept him prisoner, and only after many months of wearisome captivity was he set free.

But as years went on, all these early difficulties and quarrels were forgotten. And when at length Frederick William died, he died thanking God for having given him so good and worthy a son to succeed him on the throne.