Youth of the Great Elector - George Upton

The Great Elector

The Elector was announced. Mother and son rose and went to meet him. He had suffered for years in one foot, and for a short time in the other, so that he could not walk and. had to be taken about in a roll-chair. Upon the face of the broken-down man one could read the sorrowful history of his twenty years' rule. "My son," began the Elector, "I learn from Schwarzenberg that you have sent back a message of the Berlinese. I understand you, my son, and declare to you now that I would gladly listen to any suggestion from you bearing upon the welfare of the country. It is time, my son, for you to live here, that you may become acquainted with the hard duties of ruling a country. Who knows whether the Almighty may not soon call me hence? I long for the rest, for I am tired, so tired! Come here, my son, and sit by my side, for I would speak with you from the bottom of my heart. And you too, dearest wife, who have shared joys and sorrows with me,—there have not been many joys,—sit at my side and be a witness to the words I shall speak to the future ruler of this country. Give me your hands!

"My son, for more than twenty years the war has raged between Catholics and Protestants, and there is not a country in Europe which has suffered as much as our own possessions, Brandenburg, Prussia, and Cleves. My son, I will look calmly back upon my life and try to speak without prejudice. I have turned my attention from worldly to eternal matters. Why should I seek worldly glory, I, who am so soon to stand before the judgment seat of God? Had I had the heroic character of Gustavus Adolphus, surely, surely things might have been different. But it would have been difficult even for him, whose devoted courage led him to his death, to be a soldier as well as a Brandenburg prince; for the very things necessary to a soldier's success a full treasury, and a great, valiant army—would have been lacking.

"Many will say, 'Why could they not have been secured?' My son, glance with me at my life and then decide. Difficulties were piled upon difficulties. I could hardly move, there were so many obstacles in my way. (Had it not been for you, dear wife, I should long ago have been only dust and ashes. You were my stay and staff.) Almost everything which happened to our house so weighed down my soul that it was not possible to rise above it. I had to secure your safety and education far away from me. You know what happened to your mother's brother. Shortly afterwards the Emperor's ban stripped one of my father's uncles, Duke Johann George, of his dukedom, and me and my house of all claims upon it. Then another brother of my father, Margrave Christian Wilhelm, administrator of the Archbishopric of Magdeburg, was outlawed and driven from his country and people. My brother, Joachim Sigismund, whom I appointed before Schwarzenberg as Minister of Brandenburg, escaped only by his courage from death by fire, and died at a time when he was most needed. Then my usually excellent mother still further increased my troubles by helping to aggravate the bitterness of the Lutherans against the Reformers. You will agree with me, my son, that such things are not calculated to fill the heart with fresh courage.

"Notwithstanding all this I had no intention of letting things go as they might. I strove to create an army, but the money was not to be had, as I have said. The acquisition of Prussia and the Cleves Rhineland imposed tremendous burdens, and besides this, the country was burdened with a load of debt. In a period of undisturbed peace the country might pay its obligations in twenty or thirty years, but in a time of the greatest exhaustion the greatest sacrifices had to be made. The provinces were so hard to please and so penurious and reluctant to make grants of money, that any chance of energetic action in my time was nipped in the bud. The country continually grew poorer from year to year. Perhaps another, standing in my relations to the provinces at the time when there was possible hope of relief, might have acted more resolutely than I did and have accomplished some results. I can believe it, and yet I could not do otherwise while I, as a follower of the Reformed religion, had almost the entire population against me.

"But suppose the Protestant cause at the very beginning of the war had not induced the Emperor to renounce me? I sometimes ask myself this question, my son, and surely it should often occur to you. Think about it. The war began in Bohemia, then under the rule of my poor cousin Frederick. He belonged to the Reformed Church. What sympathy did we show for him? His overthrow was desired by the Lutherans and by nearly all the people of the country. Not a finger could be raised in his behalf without it being the signal for an uproar.

"Then came our cousin Christian of Denmark with a strong army. My son, I knew him. I will not inveigh against him, far from it. But could I rely upon him? I could not and dared not. 'If everything prospers,' I said to myself, 'our nearest inheritance, the dukedom of Pomerania, will be in danger of being swallowed up by Denmark. If everything goes badly, then Denmark will make a good peace and will be the bitter enemy of its own allies.' Has not Denmark treated another country in that manner? The Dukes of Mecklenburg could sing you a song about broken faith.

"Next appears Gustavus Adolphus. He was then fighting the Poles. You know about our rights in Prussia. We had obtained it as a fief from Poland. Great was our danger of losing it. When Gustavus Adolphus made peace with the Poles our circumstances were more favorable. But when he came to Germany at the head of an army as the Emperor's enemy, I hesitated about joining him and had many serious scruples. His army, when he landed on the coast of Pomerania, numbered scarcely fifteen thousand men. I said to myself, 'If my brother-in-law fails, then he must retreat, and the experiences of his brother-in-law Frederick and the Dukes of Mecklenburg will be repeated. The Emperor will outlaw him and divide up the country among his favorites.'

"At last it became painful to me to see the German Empire invaded by a stranger, and the thought of offering him assistance was intolerable. The victorious advance of the God-fearing and trusting King at last irresistibly appealed to me and all my apprehensions vanished. Urged from within and without, I joined him. Now came the only time in my regent-pilgrimage when I could breathe freely,—but, alas, only for a short time. 'The Star of the North' aroused hopes for better times in my breast—even more, belief in them. But the Star was extinguished all too soon on the bloody field of Lutzen."

The Elector paused. His long talk and perhaps the recalling of so much that was sorrowful had greatly overcome him.

"My dearest husband," said the Electoress, "this is enough of these painful memories for to-day."

"Just a few words more, true wife, my staff and consolation in times of trouble. You and my son are the only joys I have known, the only joys I shall know in my dying hour."

Tears glistened in all their eyes. The Electoress stroked his emaciated cheeks with a pale, trembling hand.

With a deep sigh he resumed: "Ah! what a mournful picture my rule from the first to the last year calls up! Death will soon lay his hand upon my heart, and already my grave pens to receive me. And what do I see all about me? The country wasted by the hand of enemy and friend as no other country in Europe has been! A churchyard of mouldering corpses! Oh, horrible sight! And this is the legacy which I must make to my brave and pious son! My God!" He hid his face.

Shortly after this scene the Elector, whose gentle heart was not made for such times of iron and who surely would have been blest by his people in peaceful times, passed away.

In his twentieth year the Electoral Prince Frederick William took the reins of power. His provinces were partly in the hands of the Swedes, who had changed them into a wilderness, in which villages were traced only by their ashes, and cities by rubbish and ruins. The dukedoms of Cleves had been robbed by Spaniards and Dutch, who levied unheard-of tribute and plundered them while pretending to protect them. Prussia, which had previously been invaded by Gustavus Adolphus, still suffered from the wounds which had been inflicted during this war. In such desperate circumstances—his inheritance invaded by many princes; Ruler, without possession of his own provinces; Elector, without the authority of one; Ally, without friends,—Frederick William began his reign; and in his early youth, at the age when errors are most likely to be made, and when men find it difficult to rule even themselves, he furnished an example of extraordinary wisdom and of all those virtues which fit one to rule mankind.