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 electoral title had originated in the 15th Century. The ruling family of Brandenburg-Prussia was the Hohenzollern family. This family had been German military adventurers with no connection to Brandenburg-Prussia. In the 16th Century, the area was conquered by the Grandmaster of the Teutonic Order of Knights – lead by the Hohenzollerns. This was a crusading order that conquered the Baltic and subjugated the people of Brandenburg-Prussia. The Hohenzollerns were near enough colonial lords who had little love for the people of Brandenburg-Prussia.
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 Sweden during 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.
Frederick William was a very able man. He knew from 1640 what he wanted Brandenburg-Prussia to be but he had to work within the state’s weaknesses that became so obvious during the Thirty Years War. In 1643 he made peace with Sweden. In 1646, he married the eldest daughter of the Stadtholder of the Netherlands. This was a diplomatic marriage as opposed to a marriage of love. In the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Brandenburg-Prussia was given Halberstadt, Magdeburg, Minden and Eastern Pomerania.
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.
Brandenburg-Prussia had no army as such in 1640. Therefore, Frederick William did all that he could to build up a loyal army that would be a credit to his state. In 1640, he inherited an army made up of mercenaries who lacked loyalty in the best of times. These mercenaries had also been responsible for terrorising the people of Brandenburg-Prussia and any leader who could get rid of these men would win popularity with his people.
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.