Modern Europe—Rise of Prussia

1740 to 1848
Frederick the Great to Revolutions of 1848

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Rise of Prussia

The rise of Prussia, from an insignificant duchy on the far reaches of the Holy Roman Empire to one of the leading states of Europe was one of the most important developments of the 18th century. Prussia's remarkable growth in influence was due to both military achievements and government philosophy. Its dominion grew most strikingly under the reign of Frederick the Great, but Prussian leaders both before and afterward increased Prussian influence by establishing a free customs zone, permitting freedom of worship, and enforcing state-sponsored compulsory education. By 1860 Prussia was poised to replace Austria as the dominant state in the German-speaking realms.

Maria Theresa of Austria
The Hapsburg Empire—From the age of Maximilian I until the mid 19th century, Hapsburg Austria was the leading kingdom in Eastern Europe but its history, culture, and government were very different from that of Prussia. The Hapsburg Empire arose in the 15th century almost entirely through fortunate marriages rather than armed conflict but it was never structured as a modern state with a centralized government. The Hapsburgs presided over many semi-independent kingdoms and duchies, and included Germans, Magyars, Czechs, Croatians, Slavs, and Italians among their subjects. Hapsburg laws and institutions were Catholic and semi-feudal, so "Enlightenment" ideas were slow to affect the empire. Due to its large and sprawling dominions and ancient traditions, Austria had a difficult time adapting to changes in technology, commerce, and military armaments; while Prussia, with its centralized and autocratic government, was able to make reforms and modernize quickly.

The Hohenzollerns of Prussia—The first notable member of the House of Hohenzollern—the rulers of Brandenburg and Prussia—was the Great Elector. He was a well-respected military leader during the Great Northern War and he passed laws to encourage immigration of industrious Huguenots to his realm. Since his dominions were already populated with Calvinists, Lutherans, and Catholics, religious toleration was already an accepted fact of life, so edicts granting "religious freedom" were more readily accepted than they were in realms with a single religious tradition. The Great Elector left his realms in such a prosperous condition that his son was able to elevate the status of Prussia from a Duchy and crown himself the first King of Prussia.

The Great Elector's grandson was Frederick William I. He, like his grandfather, was frugal and a strong military leader. He left his kingdom with a large well-drilled army and a full treasury so when Frederick II (the Great) came to the throne he was able to undertake an unprecedented campaign of expansion. Frederick II is the most famous King of Prussia and in may ways he established the character of the nation. He combined a fearless determination in military matters with a tyrannical dedication to efficiency and order. He was thoroughly up-to-date with the "enlightened" ideas of the age, and made many reforms in agriculture, education, taxation, commerce, and civil service. He was also a dedicated patron of the arts, science, and literature, and noteably, he was one of the first openly atheistic monarchs of Europe. He welcomed freethinkers such as Voltaire to his court and mocked many aspects of Christianity. Frederick II's modern outlook on religion and government brought great prosperity to his kingdom but also made Prussia a hub of heretical doctrines, from Freemasonry to Rosicrucianism.

Frederick the Great
Frederick the Great—Frederick II's reign in Prussia corresponded almost exactly with that of Maria Theresa of Austria. Both ruled for over forty years and spent fifteen of those at war with each other over Silesia, a Bohemian duchy south of Brandenburg. Soon after Maria Theresa came to the throne, Frederick II marched his army into the region and claimed it for Brandenburg in spite of the fact that he had no legitimate claim to the territory. For over 1000 years, the peace of Europe had depended on the respect of sovereign rights of Christian monarchs, and Frederick's claim to Silesia was a naked act of aggression unsupported by hereditary claims. Two continental wars, involving all the great powers of Europe were fought over Silesia, but in the end Frederick prevailed, and Maria Theresa was forced to cede the territory.

Ten years after the close of the Seven Year's War Frederick had another opportunity to enlarge his dominions, this time at the expense of Poland. By 1772, when the outlying territories of Poland were first partitioned between Austria, Prussia, and Russia, Poland was already a Russian client-state, and the partition had more to do with Russian diplomacy than Polish sovereign rights. Nevertheless, Maria Theresa objected to the partition, and only participated in the project to prevent further enlargement of Prussia. When the final partition of Poland occurred, twenty years later, Maria Theresa was no longer around to express doubts, and the quaint notion of hereditary rights of sovereign kings was on the verge of being blown to smithereens by the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. After hundreds of years of Christian rule, Europe was perilously close returning to the age when territorial disputes were resolved by "right of Conquest"—the very doctrine that all the Christian monarchies of Europe were established to oppose.

The "Enlightened Despots"—Maria Theresa was an outspoken critic of Frederick the Great and saw his disregard for sovereign rights, traditional institutions, and the Church as a threat to the stability of Europe. But he was a popular role model for a new generation of European monarchs, including Maria's own son Joseph II, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Charles III of Spain. These "enlightened despots" sought to modernize their kingdoms and they admired Frederick's ability to centralize power in his own hands, throw off tradition and precedent, and make dramatic reforms to government. The monarchies of Europe were never dictatorships, but rather, complicated bureaucracies run by nobles and churchmen with all sorts of hereditary privileges, monopolies, and fiefdoms. Frederick's freedom to disregard traditional power arrangements was due to the fact that Prussia was a small and young nation, but the fact that he had successfully resisted vastly larger, more powerful nations, and held a great deal of direct power in his own hands won him much admiration from young reform-minded monarchs.

Once Joseph II ascended to the throne of Austria, he tried to implement a number of dramatic reforms that had been blocked by his sincerely Catholic mother. He abolished serfdom and extended freedom of the press, but much of his activity was directed against the autonomy of the Catholic Churches. He close monasteries, confiscated church property, appointed bishops loyal to the government, cut off contact between Austrian bishops and the Curia in Rome, and turned religious schools, including seminaries over to state control. His policies were so anti-clerical they were thought to be the work of the Freemasons, and it was not until the death of Joseph, on the eve of the French Revolution, that the persection of the Church in Austria abated.

Prussia and Austria under Napoleon—Meanwhile in Prussia, the throne had descended to Frederick William II, the nephew of Frederick the Great. He was a weak leader and rolled back some of Frederick's more unpopular laws and policies. He also failed to maintain the Prussian army at exactly the time it was most essential, the opening years of the French Revolution. As a result, the Prussians withdrew from the anti-French coalition in 1793 after their first defeat at the Battle of Valmy and thirteen years later Napoleon over ran Prussia at the disastrous battle of Jena-Auerstadt. Napoleon essentially dismantled Prussia and partitioned all of her recently acquired territories. Fortunately, Frederick William II's reign did not last long and his son, Frederick William III, was a more disciplined and conscientious leader. He continued to drill the Prussian army even during the years of French occupation so when the opportunity to oppose France finally arose they were among the best prepared soldiers in Europe. The Prussian army, under the leadership of Marshal Blucher was key to the allied victories at the Battles of Leipzig and Waterloo and Prussia's reputation as one of the leading powers of Europe was restored. Most of Prussia's lost territory was restored at the Congress of Vienna, but the Prussian hatred of France smoldered for another generation.

Battle of Austerlitz
The Austrians were the earliest and most persistant enemies of the French Revolution and Napoleon. Maria Antoinette was an Austrian princess and the aunt of Emperor Francis II, so the Hapsburgs opposed the developments in France from the beginning. In the twenty year conflict, Austria lost dozens of battles and signed a number of humiliating treaties; yet it continued to resist France at every turn. The treaty of Campio Formio in 1797 ceded northern Italy and the Austrian Netherlands to France and their disastrous loss at Austerlitz brought an end to the Holy Roman Empire. Still, the Austrians regrouped and continued to oppose Napoleon. Eventually, in hopes of restoring a permanent peace to Europe, Napoleon divorced his wife Josephine and married the Austrian princess Marie Louise. But even this gesture brought only a temporary peace. Napoleon's disregard for tradition and for the ancient rights of all institutions he did not personally control was intolerable tyranny. As soon as word of Napoleon's disastrous campaign in Russia was heard, a new Austrian army was raised, and the despot was driven back to France, and then into exile at Elba. Marie Louise, Napoleon's wife and mother of his only son, deserted him in his critical hour, and fled to her father's court in Austria.

Metternich and the Restoration—The state of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 was quite desperate. Virtually every country had been over-run and ancient institutions uprooted. Millions had been killed in the wars, and shifting alliances and ideas of government caused distrust and cross-purposes even among the allies. As host of the Congress of Vienna, the Austrian diplomat Metternich, was in charge of putting humpty dumpty back together again, and given the extremely challenging circumstances, the Congress of Vienna introduced a remarkably stable new order. Austria did well; regaining much of her lost territory in Italy and central Europe, but Prussia was also allowed a generous influence and even France was treated fairly. Other than the Wars of Italian Unification, and German Unification, which occured between 1859 and 1870, Europe enjoyed a century of peace and prosperity.

German Arts and Culture—It is important to note that Germans in both Austrian and Prussia were influential in the arts, sciences, and education reform during the 18th and 19th centuries. This period saw the careers of Mozart, Beethoven, and Joseph Haydn, in Music, and Kant, Hoffman, and Goethe in literature and Philosophy. Most influentially, however, the Prussian model of compulsory elementary education and state sponsored, secular Universities were extremely influential, not only in Europe, but in the United States as well.

Characters—Rise of Prussia

Character/Date Short Biography

Prussian Leaders

Great Elector
Calvinist Duke of Prussia and Elector of Brandenburg who made commercial and domestic reforms and laid the groundwork for the rise of Prussia.
Frederick William I
Father of Frederick the Great who reformed the Prussian economy and built a strong standing army.
Frederick the Great
Great Prussian military leader in the War of the Austrian Succession and Seven Years War.
Frederick William III
Prussian king during and after the Napoleonic Wars. Reformed government and military after the neglect of his father's reign.
Louise of Prussia
Queen of Prussia who inspired Germany to resist Napoleon. Greatly honored in Prussia.
Marshal Blucher
Prussian Field Marshall who opposed Napoleon at Leipzig and Waterloo. (At age 72!)

Polish Leaders

Thaddeus Kosciusko
Polish national who fought in the American Revolution, and later led a Polish uprising against Russia.

Austrian Leaders

Eugene of Savoy
One of the Greatest generals of the Hapsburg Empire. Led Austria during the War of Spanish Succession.
Maria Theresa
Head of Hapsburg Dynasty. Ruled over much of Eastern Europe. Opposed Frederick the Great.
Joseph II
Eldest son of Maria Theresa who attempted to make dramatic changes to "modernize" Austria, with limited success.
Francis II
Emperor of Austria during the Napoleonic Wars; last Holy Roman Emperor.
Andreas Hofer
Patriot of the Austrian Tyrol who held Austria for the Hapsburgs against Napoleon's allies.
Austrian statesman who was influential in bringing about a long lasting peace in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. Hosted Congresss of Vienna.
Archduke Charles
Younger brother of Francis II. Important general of the Austrian army during the Napoleonic Wars.

German Arts, science, and Literature

German composer associated with Baroque classical music.
Composer of Baroque Symphonies and Operas. Major influence on Beethoven and Mozart.
Influential literary persona of the 18th century. Wrote Faust.
Joseph Haydn
Very influential composer from Vienna who was an associate of Mozart, and a teacher of Beethoven.
One of the most popular classical composers in history. Composed over 600 works including symphonies, operas, and chamber music.

Timeline—Rise of Prussia

AD YearEvent

Rise of Prussia 1700 to 1815

1685 Edict of Potsdam establishes freedom of worship; encourages migration of Huguenots to Prussia.
1688 Death of the Great Elector, Duke of Prussia who liberalized trade and religion in the region.
1700 Holy Roman Emperor permits Frederick III of Brandenburg to crown himself king in Prussia.
1701-14 Austria gains territory in the Netherlands and Italy during the War of the Spanish Succession.
1713 Frederick William I reforms finances of Prussia and builds a large standing army.
1733-38 Prussia supports Augustus III's claim to the Polish throne in War of the Polish Succession.
1740 Frederick the Great ascends to Prussian throne. Inherits full treasury, well-drilled army.
1740-48 Prussia annexes Selesia during the War of the Austrian Succession.
1750 Voltaire resides at San Souci until he argues with his patron, Frederick the Great.
1756-63 Prussia fends off attacks from Austria, France and Russia during the Seven Year's War.
1772 First Partition of Poland enlarges Prussian territory and joins Prussia and Brandenburg.
1783 Frederick William II, a weak and indulgent prince, ascends to the throne after death of Frederick II.
1792 Prussia bows out of the French Revolutionary Wars after a loss at the Battle of Valmy.
1793 Second Partition of Poland gives Prussia control of Gdansk, and territory as far east as Krackow.
1794 Primary schooling made compulsory for all children, and role of the religious orders strictly regulated.
1797 Frederick William III ascends to the throne of Prussia and begins reform of government.
1806 Napoleon overruns Prussia after the battle of Jena-Auerstadt, partitions Polish territories.
1813 Prussia rises against France, led by Marshal Blucher.
1815 Congress of Vienna restores Prussian territory and creates the German Confederation.
1818 Prussia establishes a tarriff-free "Zollverein" customs union among German states.

Prussian Education Reforms

1763 Primary schooling made compulsory for all children, and role of religious orders is strictly regulated.
1788 National examination required for all civil service positions.
1794 All schools and Universities became state institutions.
1810 University of Berlin, founded by Baron Humboldt, became a model for modern secular Universities.
1834 Horace Mann travels to Prussia to observe educational system, then implements Prussian system in Massachusetts.

Hapsburg-Austria 1700 to 1815

1701-14 War of the Spanish Succession weakens France, gives Austria control of Northern Italy and Netherlands.
1713 Charles VI issues the "Pragmatic Sanction" to assure succession of his daughter Maria Theresa.
1740 Maria Theresa ascends to the Hapsburg throne.
1772 Maria Theresa agress, reluctantly, to the First Partition of Poland, with Russia and Prussia.
1774 Maria Antoinette marries the Dauphin of France.
1780 Joseph II, an anti-clerical "enlightened" monarch, ascends to the throne of Austria.
1782 Joseph II attempts reorganization of Austrian government; closes monasteries, secularizes schools, limits Papal influence.
1787-91 Austria unites with Russia in its war against the Ottoman Empire. Russia annexes Crimea.
1792 Francis II ascends to the throne of Austria; drawn into French Revolutionary Wars.
1791 Death of Mozart, Austrian musical genius.
1795 Austria gains more territory north of Bohemia by way of the Third Partition of Poland.
1797 France gains control of the Austrian Netherlands and Northern Italy by the Treaty of Campo Formio.
1805 Devastating loss to Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz ends the Holy Roman Empire .
1806 Hundreds of German states integrated into the French-controlled "Confederation of the Rhine" .
1814-15 The Congress of Vienna, led by Metternich, restores most of Northern Italy to Austrian control.

Recommended Reading—Rise of Prussia

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Haaren - Famous Men of Modern Times   Frederick the Great (1)
Finnemore - Germany: Peeps at History   The Rise of Prussia to The Fall of Germany (3)
Marshall - The History of Germany   The Rise of Brandenburg to The Downfall of Napoleon (10)

Supplemental Recommendations

Smith - Stories from Wagner Told to the Children    entire book
Birkhead - Heroes of Modern Europe    Frederick II, the Royal Robber (1)
Upton - Undine    entire book
Upton - Louise, Queen of Prussia    entire book
Upton - Frederick the Great    entire book
Upton - Maria Theresa    entire book
Raspe - Adventures of Baron Munchausen    entire book
Abbott - The History of Prussia   Origin of the Monarchy to Struggles for Liberty (8)
Treitschke - Confessions of Frederick the Great    entire book
Lord - Two German Giants    Frederic the Great to Stein, Hardenberg, Scharnhorst (2)
Morris - Historical Tales: German   The Youth of Frederick II to The Patriots of the Tyrol (4)

I: Introductory, II: Intermediate, C: College Prep