Frederick William – or the self-titled ‘Great Elector’ – took Brandenburg-Prussia from obscurity to become one of Europe’s most dominant powers. Such was the impact of Frederick William, that Prussia was to dominate the previously all-powerful Sweden in the Baltic. Frederick also ensured that Russia remained a lesser power during his reign.
Frederick William became Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia in 1640. Before this year, and for a number of years after it, Brandenburg-Prussia was seen as a joke in eastern Europe. It was referred to as the ‘sandbox’ of Europe and the state played a small part in the Thirty Years War.
The noble class of Brandenburg-Prussia were called Junkers. These men were landowners who ruled like feudal masters. They had huge powers over the people on their estates and had little regard for the family that ruled Brandenburg-Prussia.
In 1619, Brandenburg-Prussia was ruled by George William. His title as Elector belied the fact that he was incompetent and all but allowed the Junkers to do as they wished. George William relied too much on their advice – which was invariably centred around how they could keep and enhance their position within Brandenburg-Prussia.
George William had to cope with an invasion of Brandenburg-Prussia by Gustavus Adolphus of Swedenduring the Thirty Years War. During this war, Brandenburg-Prussia was pillaged and much damage was done to a state that was poor before the war. By the time George William died in 1640, Brandenburg-Prussia was very weak and was probably one of the poorest of states in the Holy Roman Empire.
The population of Brandenburg-Prussia fell to 600,000 by the end of the war. In Brandenburg, cannibalism is reported to have occurred such was the shortage of food. Her military power was non-existent as was her status in Europe. In 1640, Brandenburg-Prussia was described as a “pathetic remnant.” This was the ‘sandbox’ that Frederick William inherited.
For a state that did so badly in the Thirty Years War, why was Brandenburg-Prussia given anything? By 1648, she was a solid and united Protestant state and the powers of Europe wanted such a state in Eastern Europe to act as a counter-weight to the Holy Roman Emperor. It was assumed that if any trouble occurred in the region, then Brandenburg-Prussia would be loyal to those states still concerned about the power of the Emperor.
By 1642, the army of Brandenburg-Prussia stood at 2,500 reliable men. Despite the ravages of the Thirty Years War, this was a pitiful number. The Junkers funded an expansion of this army. The army brought peace to Brandenburg-Prussia and this had to benefit the Junkers – hence their investment. By 1648, the army had risen to 8,000 men. This army did bring stability to the people of Brandenburg-Prussia, but it was also to be the greatest asset Frederick William could have in establishing his power throughout his lands.